During one of our trips to Russia, Alexander Silaev, the son of Ivan Silaev, Russia’s prime minister, introduced us to a businessman from Tashkent named Mr. Sanjar Kassimov. He said Uzbekistan is willing to invest $20 million in medical equipment, and with our own funds dwindled by the Kremlin Cup, we wanted to seize the opportunity and do business with him. We invited him to Switzerland, and afterwards Sasson went to Tashkent. It was only when Sasson arrived in Tashkent, that he found out it was just an excuse to bring him there, and the real purpose was completely different…
Sasson: During one of the Kremlin Cup tournaments, Alexander Silaev came to me and asked me if I have a connection with a medical equipment company in Israel. He said a delegation from Uzbekistan has a huge budget for medical equipment that they want to buy from Israel. “If you can ﬁnd us a connection, the Israeli company will pay you a certain amount as commission.”
I was very happy with this offer, and soon found a company for him. They wanted to come to Tashkent, and check how serious the buyer is. Silaev organized a meeting, and we all went to Tashkent together with the Israeli delegation. In Tashkent, they told us that only President Islam Karimov can decide about this, but he’s currently on a trip and we should come back another time. We set another time for a meeting, arrived in Tashkent again, and an Uzbek delegation came to pick us up from the airport and take us to the president. They explained the procedure to us: “You go into the presidential palace, enter the hall from a door at one end, and the president enters from a door at the other end. You have to walk in the same pace as him until you meet in the middle. When you reach the president you have to kiss his hand.” When we arrived, they ﬁrst took us to a tiny room — no bigger than a telephone booth — and did a thorough body search to make sure we weren’t carrying any arms. Then we entered the hall and met the president as we were told. The president sat down and invited us to sit too. He said in Russian: “You don’t need to introduce yourself, you are very well known from the Kremlin Cup. We want you to organize a similar tournament here in Uzbekistan.”
I said: “His Excellency, with pleasure, but we came here to talk about medical equipment!”
He said: “This is the ﬁrst time I hear about medical equipment. If you have a proposal — you have to go the health minister.”
We thanked him and went out.
Then a gentleman approached us and said: “My name is Shavkat Karimov and I’m the minister of health. You are businessmen. You know that if you have medical equipment to sell you have to come to me, not to the president.”
With Silaev’s help, we set another trip and meeting about the medical equipment, but during the same trip we also organized the President’s Cup, for the ﬁrst budget I requested. In order to approve the budget, they had to convene the whole cabinet, who had to check what I needed the money for. Half the sum was for bribes, but I couldn’t write it on the budget sheet. They dictated to me how I should assess the other lines in the budget: tennis equipment, restaurants, prize money, developing junior tennis players in Uzbekistan, and ﬁnally — putting Uzbekistan on the international tennis map by broadcasting the tournament on foreign media. Islam Karimov always said: “Instead of war rockets, let’s have tennis rackets!”
Gollar: We felt a bit cheated: We went there for a very big business opportunity which never came to be, and instead, Sasson was summoned to the president’s office and asked to arrange a tournament. He was completely baffled at the direction the whole thing took. It was all pre-planned, of course.
But the president wanted a tennis tournament, and you already know Sasson, he can’t say no to challenges, international adventures and tennis! Learning from the mistakes we made in Moscow, in Uzbekistan, Sasson stated the price he wanted for the tournament, and there was no ﬁnancial risk for us. In the Kremlin Cup, on the other hand, it was all our investment, our risk and our loss until we got more sponsors, which took time. Here, we were much more relaxed. The only risk was if there had been a revolution and they wouldn’t have paid, but that didn’t happen, thank God.
Uzbekistan didn’t have proper tennis courts, only the Dynamo club, an open air sports facility with an outdoor court, which was quite shabby. The director of the Dynamo Club, Genrich Dashevsky, who later became the director of the new tennis complex that was built for the President’s Cup, helped us a lot, supported us through difficulties we faced, and we became good friends.
The Uzbeks had a date in mind: due to climatic considerations, the tournament could only take place in the spring. In 9 months time, while we were getting the ATP license, they built a stadium that would meet the ATP requirements. The construction went on as fast as they could, but six weeks before the date of the tournament we were still not sure the stadium would be ready on time! We were torn between cancelling the tournament and waiting for the last second.
We decided to wait for the last second, but that way we couldn’t get an ATP Tour license. Danny Gelley from the Israel Tennis Centers, who alongside Ian Froman was our manager and tournament director for the President’s Cup in Uzbekistan, suggested that we start with a Challenger — a lower category of tournament. The players get fewer points than the ATP Tour and the prize money is limited, but it’s easier to get a license, and it will buy us time for a year. The players, of course, prefer the official ATP Tour tournaments, but we had to work with what we had. The President’s Cup started as a small Challenger, and later we upgraded it to an ATP Tour tournament, when the government built a huge covered hall with a movable roof. But they forgot heating for the winter and air-conditioning for the summer. Just to give you an idea of why this is important, in Tashkent winters the temperatures drop to below -10˚C and in the summer they rise to 40˚C and more (below 15˚F and over 100˚F!). In the summer it’s like a furnace, and in the winter it’s a deep freezer. It was impossible to add the air-conditioning system after the hall was built, but it’s also not an ATP requirement. So the sauna-stadium was only used for the President’s Cup, with everyone sweating and waving hand-held fans.
The ﬁrst President’s Cup took place in Tashkent in May 1994, as a challenger tournament.