By Martin Cleary
Heartbreaking to heartwarming.
Ottawa’s Rassam Yazdi experienced both of those contrasting emotions about a year apart, while playing for the University of Toronto Varsity Blues at the Ontario University Athletics tennis championships.
At the 2022 provincial university final, the Varsity Blues were two match points away from finally defeating the three-time defending champion Western University Mustangs. But in the end, it didn’t work in the Blues’ favour.
“It was really tough,” said Yazdi, who was having an exceptional year to that point, going undefeated in his team matches and being named the OUA MVP.
“I was very happy and sad at the same time. I was undefeated last year and named the MVP, but we were so close and it didn’t work out. There was the possibility of a fairy-tale ending to win both. But I would trade the individual accolade for the team title.”
A year later, Toronto and Western returned to the OUA tennis championship gold-medal match last weekend. But this time, the Varsity Blues eked out a 4-3 decision for its first OUA men’s tennis title since 2015.
“It meant a lot, after a big heartbreak last year and in 2019,” an enthusiastic Yazdi, a graduating fifth-year aerospace engineering student, said in a phone interview a few days after earning his first OUA gold medal.
“It meant the world. As a group, we endured so many heartbreaks. Three years in a row (2019, 2021 and 2022) we were on the silver side. We had a lot of haunting memories.”
Yazdi played hurt through the three rounds of the OUA championships, winning his three doubles matches with Michael Chu of Coquitlam, B.C., but dropping his three singles matches.
Two weeks before the provincial championship tournament, Yazdi stubbed the second toe of his right foot and sustained a hairline fracture. It didn’t affect him as much in doubles as it did in singles as he felt he couldn’t be as explosive on the court.
“I felt I made the right decision to play through it,” Yazdi added. “I was able to win an important doubles match with Michael Chu.”
In the opening OUA championship final match, Yazdi and Chu defeated Abdullah Khan and Aidan Sarnese of Western 8-3.
But Yazdi lost his singles match to Ashton Cross, who was named OUA player of the year for 2023.
The team final was deadlocked 3-3, entering the decisive singles match. But Chu flipped the celebration switch for the Varsity Blues, when he outlasted Khan 4-6, 6-4, 6-2.
At the awards ceremony, Yazdi, who had a record of 12 wins and four losses in doubles and singles this season, was named an OUA all-star for the third time in as many years. He also was the OUA rookie of the year in 2019.
The coach-of-the-year award was presented to the University of Ottawa’s Zhenya Kondratovsky.
Yazdi and the Varsity Blues reached the final by defeating the Ottawa Gee-Gees 5-2 in the quarterfinals, and the York University Lions 4-3 in the semifinals.
In August, 2024, Yazdi and the Varsity Blues will represent the OUA at the Canadian university tennis championships. The Varsity Blues played in the 2021 nationals as a ‘lucky loser’ entry and finished fourth. But in 2024, they will compete as the OUA champion.
Yazdi is considering returning to the Varsity Blues tennis team in 2024-25 as a masters student. He has one more year of eligibility because of the lost COVID-19 pandemic season in 2020.
An aggressive baseline player, Yazdi also is a champion on the academic side. He had a near-perfect 3.92 grade-point average out of 4.0 as an undergrad. He is especially proud of his academic achievement, which was the highest grade-point average of any Varsity Blues student-athlete in 2022-23.
Yazdi was consistently one of Ottawa’s top junior players through his U16 season. But for his final two years at Lisgar Collegiate Institute, he trimmed his training schedule to 20 hours a week from 30 hours with coach Nick Mook-Sang at the Carleton Tennis Centre.
The strategy to focus more time on his high school academic courses allowed him to graduate as the Ottawa Carleton District School Board’s top scholar in 2018-19 along with Mingde Yin. Yazdi earned a 97.5 per cent average.
His exceptional graduating average played a key role in Yazdi being accepted into the University of Toronto’s renowned aerospace engineering program.
“The program I chose was one of the most demanding in the world,” he said. “They were looking for an extremely high average. Getting in was half the battle.”
Yazdi has been fascinated by airplanes for many years. There was a time he considered becoming a pilot, but he’s now focused on using his skills in math and physics to create better and more efficient plane designs.
In January, he plans to present a research paper about a new plane configuration at a conference.
“I feel tennis is a very important part of my life. I was in contact with the coach before I came to the University of Toronto (2019) and I knew I would play. It was very exciting,” said Yazdi, who spent the past year as a co-op student with Bombardier, a global leader in the aviation industry.
“I never competed in the sport as a team sport. It was a new experience and it was nice to have people cheering for me and not just having that one-on-one battle.”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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