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Zhukayev's Journey: 'I Never Thought I'd Be A Professional Player'

The 23-year-old earned his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title this year
December 08, 2023
Beibit Zhukayev in action at the Charlottesville Challenger.
Al Hoover
Beibit Zhukayev in action at the Charlottesville Challenger. By Grant Thompson

Kazakhstan’s Beibit Zhukayev first picked up a tennis racquet on a family vacation at age eight. A native of Aktau, population roughly 180,000, Zhukayev has defied odds to become a rising star on the ATP Challenger Tour.

“I never thought I’d become a professional player while practising in Aktau. It was for fun, we never had tennis coaches there or players,” Zhukayev told ATPTour.com. “I’m kind of like a superstar in that city. A lot of people tell me, ‘We never thought that someone would be that high in the rankings!’”

Zhukayev, who moved to Almaty in 2013, takes pride in being born and raised in Kazakhstan. “I’m real Kazakh,” he said. At No. 189 in the Pepperstone ATP Rankings, the 23-year-old hopes to see more tennis players emerge from his home country.

“Our tennis society and level is going up. I see a lot more children that are starting to play tennis and are more interested in the sport,” said Zhukayev, who is the second-highest ranked Kazakh, behind World No. 32 Alexander Bublik. “I believe in five, 10 years we will have more players competing.”

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If it were not for a family vacation to Türkiye, who knows if Zhukayev would be where he is today. Alongside his uncle at a resort in 2008, Zhukayev tried tennis and instantly fell in love. He also quickly caught on to a strategy.

“I made him run a lot. I loved playing corner to corner and made people run for the ball,” Zhukayev said. “My uncle fell down and he had a small injury on his knee. I still remember that he had a lot of blood on his knee and I was so sorry to him.”

A breakthrough moment for Zhukayev came in May at the Little Rock Challenger, where he advanced through qualifying en route to his first final at that level. Zhukayev went one step further in November, triumphing at the Jonathan Fried Pro Challenger in Charlottesville, Virginia. But all did not look so well at the start of the week, when Zhukayev fended off five match points to escape Thai-Son Kwiatkowski in the first round.

“I thought I was going to lose. I thought I would have another week of practice,” Zhukayev said. “I was kind of thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ I just said, ‘Let’s just try to win the next point.’ I won it and I’d say, ‘Try to win another one.’ Then when he had three more match points in a game, I just said, ‘Try and win this point and see what happens.’

“The next day I was so sore and my legs were so tired. But I figured it out and started playing better and better every day. It was an incredible week for me.”

<a href='https://www.atptour.com/en/players/beibit-zhukayev/z09z/overview'>Beibit Zhukayev</a> wins his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Beibit Zhukayev wins the Jonathan Fried Pro Challenger. Credit: Al Hoover
Zhukayev earned his maiden ATP Tour main-draw victory this year in Shanghai, where he downed Italian Stefano Napolitano. Despite the 6’5” Zhukayev hammering 20 aces in the second round against Karen Khachanov, he suffered a three-set defeat in what was his first tournament at the ATP Masters 1000 level.

With his career-best season now in the rear-view mirror, the offseason will perhaps provide some downtime for Zhukayev to enjoy his hobbies: reading, driving and spending time with his family. Zhukayev has two brothers and a twin sister, Nazik, who was born 15 minutes after Beibit.

“I don’t watch any other sports. Sometimes I read political stuff to know what’s happening in the world,” Zhukayev said. “I’m a big fan of cars as well. I enjoy food, I think our Kazakh food is the best in the world.”

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