Top Story, Spring

Ms. Worldwide: Before BC, Dair Traveled the Globe as Kazakhstan’s National Tennis Champion

Asiya Dair has been all over the world.

Her tennis career has taken her to Austria, England, Serbia, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Dubai, Australia, and Japan—and that’s not even close to a comprehensive list. But if you ask her about her favorite trip, she doesn’t even hesitate before telling you an unlikely answer: New Delhi, India.

On its own, New Delhi isn’t a surprising choice. What makes her answer interesting is what actually happened in New Delhi back in 2013, when Dair represented her home country, Kazakhstan, in the Asian Closed Junior Tennis Championships. They couldn’t make the trip from Kazakhstan to New Delhi in one flight, so Dair and her teammates had a layover in Dubai. That’s when the trouble started.

Problem No. 1: Their bags were lost somewhere along the way.

Losing bags on a flight for most of us is just inconvenient, but for Dair and her teammates, it was catastrophic. They had arrived in New Delhi ready for the tournament, but suddenly lost all of their luggage. The only solution was to go to the only mall open and buy new clothes to play in.

Problem No. 2: The mall had no women’s tennis apparel.

Instead, Dair and her teammates had to purchase and wear men’s apparel. In the heat—around 100 degrees Fahrenheit—donning men’s shirts and shorts rather than the typical tennis skirt or dress was killer. But still, Team Kazakhstan persevered, ready to take on the tournament.

Problem No. 3: Dair’s bag fell out of the tuk-tuk on the way to the courts.

Dair and her teammates took a tuk-tuk, a sort of taxi slightly resembling a golf cart, to get from the hotel to the courts where they needed to play. With all of them crammed together, it was tough to fit their big tennis bags in the tuk-tuk, too—Dair had hers precariously balanced on her lap as they made their way to the courts. But the traffic in New Delhi is crazy and unpredictable. At one point, as the tuk-tuk moved to the side of the road, her bag fell out onto the road. Immediately, a group of children fell upon it and started to run away.

Arriving at her match without rackets wasn’t an option. Dair asked the driver to stop and jumped out, determined to get her bag back. She chased the kids down, got her rackets back, and jokingly promised that next time, they could keep them.

The pregame chaos did little to slow Dair come tournament time. Ranked as a fifth seed, she knocked off the three-seed and made it all the way to the championship match before losing to Snehadevi Reddy of India.

“I have warm memories of New Delhi, India,” Dair said with a smile on her face.

The sky was still dark when Dair’s father, Dairov Zharat, unexpectedly woke her up one morning.

Just 6 years old, Dair wanted to go back to sleep. But her father, a former professional basketball player, had other plans. It was time for Dair and one of her brothers to start their athletic careers. It was the day of her first tennis lesson.

Dair wasn’t happy about waking up early to start her tennis career, but even the sight of her tears didn’t shake her father’s resolve. Soon enough, however, even as her brother decided to stop playing, she fell in love with the sport—and her life took off from there.

Dair quickly became serious about tennis. She had a team of four coaches help her develop as a player: two fitness coaches, one tennis coach, and a sparring partner to challenge her at practice. Her relentless work ethic propelled her into the international rankings—Dair was a top-50 player in the world until the U-18 age bracket. Of course, this meant she traveled to play in tournaments across the world from a very young age.

“The best part of tennis is traveling,” Dair said. “My childhood—it was all airports.”

When Dair was 15, however, she contemplated quitting tennis. It was a huge time commitment and she wanted to focus on her grades. She elected to take a short break from the sport, but couldn’t stay away very long. Before long, she had earned the title National Champion of Kazakhstan and was back to the traveling tennis life.

Along with traveling for tennis came the opportunity to experience the unique cultures of well over a dozen countries across the globe—and, notably, the opportunity to test out the unique foods of well over a dozen countries. Dair estimates that she gained four pounds of weight in one week in Europe just from trying out various pastries and bread.

Some of the tournaments Dair played in are well-known to even the most casual tennis fan. She competed in the juniors tournaments at Wimbledon, the French Open, and the U.S. Open. Typically, colleges will scout major junior tournaments to identify talent and start the recruiting process. With Dair, the process went a little differently. Initially, according to Boston College assistant coach John Sherwood, she toyed between attending college and going pro. Sherwood says that’s just the type of player BC loves.

“We’re looking for players like Asiya who can make that transition [into professional tennis] if they choose to,” Sherwood said.

Head coach Nigel Bentley wanted her to come to BC, too. Throughout the winter and spring of her senior year Bentley and Dair remained in contact as BC attempted to convince her to come. At first, it might have seemed like a tall order, considering the other schools (and weather opportunities) Dair had to consider.

She received attention and offers from UCLA, USC, Miami, Florida, Wisconsin, and Virginia, among others. The thought of beautiful weather in the California and Florida schools tempted Dair, but in April of her senior year she flew from Kazakhstan to Boston to take a look at BC.

When she arrived, she fell in love with the campus—especially the Harry Potter-esque architecture of the buildings—and the rest is history. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Dair visited BC during the most magical weekend of the year: Marathon Monday weekend.)

And with that, it was official: Dair would spend the next four years in maroon and gold, representing BC in the competitive Atlantic Coast Conference. Flash forward three years and Dair, now a junior, is making her mark at BC.

Mark Cooper is a celebrated artist and sculptor based in Boston. He is a faculty member at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, but also teaches ceramics at BC, and came to know Dair when she took his Beginning Ceramics class.

Students in Cooper’s Beginning Ceramics class conduct a research project in which they identify an artist who will influence their work over the course of the semester. Dair chose sculptor Ralph Helmick.

Cooper has known Helmick for years. The two went to graduate school together and have been friends ever since. But Dair’s thorough research turned up information about Helmick and his art that Cooper didn’t even know, despite their close friendship.

She put just as much energy and focus into her final project, creating a ceramic stage complete with ceramic curtains—and then projecting video through them, a project Cooper labeled as “sophisticated” for someone new to the art world.

For Dair’s teammates, this laser focus on the task at hand and dedication to giving 110 percent to every challenge is apparent on the court as well as in the classroom. Dasha Possokhova, a freshman on the team, connected with Dair right away, partly because both of them speak Russian fluently. The first time she saw Dair play, Possokhova was astonished at her grit and focus. It was the first outdoor practice of the year, and the heat was nearly unbearable. Even as Possokhova grew exhausted and overheated, she watched Dair not let up even one iota.

Dair’s commitment to improving goes beyond practicing her strokes. Dair and Possokhova worked out together some mornings, and Possokhova marveled at her teammate’s drive to push herself constantly.

“She just keeps going,” Possokhova said. “She’s like a machine, she never stops.”

Bentley has seen this “extraordinary” work ethic for the past three years. In practice, he says, Dair maintains her focus and pushes herself beyond the challenges assigned by her coaches. One practice, she hit almost 200 strokes perfectly, then clipped the net on one shot. Frustrated, she asked Bentley what she’d done wrong. When he pointed out that she’d just hit hundreds of perfect shots, she didn’t care—she’d made a mistake on just one, and that wasn’t good enough.

Another time, after a tough loss in a match, Dair texted Bentley, promising that she’d work harder than she’d ever worked before at the next practice. If she makes a mistake with her forehand in a match, she’ll challenge herself to hit 100 extra forehands at the next practice, placing them perfectly each time.

Dair sums up her practice mentality pretty succinctly: “You try to kill yourself in practice. That’s how you build your confidence.”

Before arriving at BC, Dair was primarily a singles player, but now she plays both singles and doubles. Dair plays on Court One, matching up against the toughest competition in the ACC. So far this season, she is 10-9 in singles play, with many of her losses coming against the top players in the country.

Meanwhile, she plays doubles with Elene Tsokilauri. Playing doubles has been the biggest challenge of her college career—but given her work ethic and the support of her teammates, Dair has quickly adjusted to her new role.

In singles, she prefers to stay back on the court, hovering around the baseline and sending deep groundstrokes across the net to challenge her opponents. Playing at the net and using volleys to win points wasn’t in her singles arsenal. But net play is crucial in doubles, so she set about mastering volleys.

Besides volleys, Dair counts her backhand and serve as her two most dangerous weapons on the court. Dair has a naturally strong backhand, and she has relied on it to help her out in tough moments in numerous matches across her career. As for her serve? Well, as Dair says, when it works, it works really well.

Whether it is her serve, backhand, forehand, or volley, all facets of Dair’s game are enhanced by her mental toughness.

“Tennis may be different from other sports in some ways,” Bentley said. “It’s a very big sport mentally when you get to a certain level and Asiya is very tough in that department.”

Although Dair has earned plenty of big wins during her first three years as an Eagle, Bentley is proudest of her for the way she acts after a tough loss. Rather than allowing herself to sulk at her loss, Dair responds with renewed determination, energy, and drive.

Of course, for Dair, this is only natural. She loves tennis now just as much as she did after her first tennis lesson at the age of six. Every step of her career—every backhand winner, every tournament won, every country visited—has carried her to BC, where she is able to discover new things about herself in every single match.

“Every match is like a challenge to myself,” she said. “I always associate a tennis match with my life.”  

Featured Image Courtesy of BC Athletics

April 10, 2017