Three Big Takeaways: Kajuru and Kezuka win ITA Regional Championship


Jacob Rice

Thasaporn Naklo competes against the Oklahoma Sooners on April 8.

Iowa State tennis returned home with their hands on a pair of winners’ medals from this past weekend as the Cyclones secured a bid to the ITA Fall National Championships.

Sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru and senior Chie Kezuka made history in the doubles tournament, as the pair won their first ITA Regional Championship by winning the final Monday. Iowa State doubles pairs finished the weekend with a combined record of 10-2.

The Cyclones achieved numerous successes in both singles and doubles but were also highlighted by a loss in singles, as senior Thasaporn Naklo had her winning streak snapped at the regional tournament.

Kajuru and Kezuka capture doubles title

Heading into the regional tournament, the Cyclones had all three doubles pairs seeded in the main draw. Kajuru and Kezuka, who were teaming up for the second time in their careers, were the second overall seed in the bracket.

The pair’s first few wins were both by 8-3 scorelines, as they, along with Iowa State’s other doubles teams, went undefeated through day one of the tournament.

However, that streak would have to end, as Kajuru and Kezuka faced teammates Anna Supapitch Kuearum and Miska Kadleckova. The No. 2 seeds beat the No. 9 pair 8-4 to move onto the quarterfinals.

Moving into the last eight, Kajuru and Kezuka faced off against Arkansas’ Indianna Spink and Kelly Keller, the No. 7 seeds. It was a rematch for Keller and Kezuka, as both players faced off in the singles competition of the ITF Hilton Head 15K tournament. In the round of 16 matchups, Kajuru defeated Keller 3-6, 6-1, 6-4 to stay undefeated in the tournament before Hurricane Ian canceled the remaining matches.

Kajuru and Kezuka defeated the Razorbacks pairing 8-5, then faced their first competition from the Big 12 in Oklahoma’s Dana Guzman and Julia Garcia Ruiz. Guzman helped the Sooners reach the final of the NCAA team championship last year, where they fell to Texas in Champaign, Illinois. Garcia-Ruiz made her debut at the regional tournament being a freshman.

In a best-of-three-sets match, Kajuru and Kezuka created history with their victory, taking down the Sooner pairing 6-4, 7-5 [7-5]. By reaching the final, they had now qualified for the ITA Fall Championships for the first time together.

The final saw a matchup between experience and newcomers, as Kajuru and Kezuka faced Minnesota’s Anet Koskel and Zoey Weil. The No. 12 seeds had a bit of luck on their side of the draw, as they didn’t have to face top seeds Ayumi Miyamoto and Kristina Novak from Oklahoma State due to them falling in the quarterfinals.

The Golden Gophers’ semifinal win over Oklahoma’s Emma Staker and Alexandra Pisareva came down to a 10-point tiebreaker, which Koskel and Weil won 10-6. In their first tournament together, they now stood on the brink of a run to the title.

The final was more convincing for Kajuru and Kezuka, as they won the regional title in straight sets, 6-3, 6-2. The pair added the championship to a resume that also includes a Big 12 title at No. 3 doubles in last year’s spring campaign, including going 7-1 in conference play.

Kezuka and Kajuru are now the third pair in Iowa State history to qualify for the Fall National Championships, as they join teammates Sofia Cabezas, Miska Kadleckova, Thasaporn Naklo and Christin Hsieh from last season. Cabezas and Kadleckova defeated their teammates in the regional championship final in Iowa City last fall to create history for the Cyclones program.

Hsieh bounces back in singles

Senior Christin Hsieh had a strong outing in singles over the weekend, as she won out in the consolation bracket to finish the weekend with a record of 5-1.

Hsieh, who was making her season debut at the regional championships, had previously been a doubles specialist last season for the Cyclones when she and teammate Thasaporn Naklo became the second pair in school history to advance to the ITA Fall National Championships.

Hsieh finished the 2021-22 season with a record of 22-14 in doubles, compared to 6-6 when going solo on the court.

In the opening round of the main bracket, Naklo fell to Lingwei Kong, a fourth-year graduate student out of Wichita State (WSU) 1-6, 5-7. Kong missed the 2020-21 season for the Shockers due to the COVID-19 Pandemic and returned to the program last season.

It was her second win at the Regional Championships, after having reached the round of 64 in last year’s tournament as well after being given an at-large bid to the draw.

Meanwhile, Hsieh was the only Iowa State singles player not to advance past the first round, with all seven players on the Iowa State roster starting in the main draw. Five of the six remaining players, except for Sofia Cabezas, earned trips to the round of 64 via a bye due to their seeding.

Cabezas defeated Kansas’ Jocelyn Massey, a transfer to the Jayhawks from St. Mary’s, 6-3, 6-1.

From that defeat onwards, Hsieh would not lose again throughout the weekend, dropping just two sets along the way. Her first win came in the round of 32 of the consolation bracket, as she defeated Bradley’s Anna Belogliadova 6-2, 6-3.

Another WSU Shocker was up next for Hsieh, as her passage to the quarter-finals had to go through Harriet Hamilton. The senior from Taipei won the first set 6-0 when Hamilton had to withdraw from the match due to injury.

Hsieh’s first real test came in the quarterfinals when she went up against Tulsa’s Lily Hutchings. The sophomore from Preston, England, was a 20-match winner for the Golden Hurricane in both singles and doubles during her freshman campaign, going 41-15 in her debut collegiate season.

Hutchings took a commanding lead in the match by winning the opening set 6-0. Hsieh fought back, however, and evened things up in the second with a 7-6 [7-4] win on tiebreaker points. The third set was another competitive affair, with Hsieh taking the match after a 7-6 [7-5] victory in the decider.

The semifinals and final saw Hsieh face Big 12 competition, as she first took on Massey of Kansas. After another tiebreaker first set, which she won 7-6 [7-4], Hsieh took on Kansas State’s Rozalia Gruszcynska in the final, with the Wildcats freshman having not dropped a set across any of her consolation draw matches.

It was another tight encounter for Hsieh, who took the first set 6-4 but fell behind in the second to lose it 4-6. The third and deciding set was decided on a 10-point tiebreak, and Hsieh relished the moment again. She won the final set 10-7 to take first place in the consolation bracket.

Naklo falls in quarterfinals

Heading into the regional tournament, Naklo had high expectations, having won this title a year ago to become the first Cyclone singles player to qualify for the Fall National Championships.

Naklo started the main draw as the No. 1 overall seed and ranked 39th in the country. After receiving a bye in the first round, she easily disposed of Arkansas State’s Thea Rice by a double-bagel scoreline (6-0, 6-0).

In the round of 32, Naklo took on Iowa sophomore Marisa Schmidt, who was playing in her first fall season for the Hawkeyes. Last spring, Schmidt played primarily in the No. 1 and 2 singles spots for her team, going for a record of 8-15 over the campaign.

Naklo took charge early in the match against Schmidt, easily winning the first set 6-0. This was followed by a closer second set in which the Thai senior ultimately won 6-4 to progress to the next round.

Heading into the last 16, Naklo was one of four Iowa State players left in the main draw. Like Naklo, Kajuru, Kadleckova and Kuearum all had to face seeded competition in their respective pre-quarterfinals matches, as 15 of the remaining 16 players in the main draw were seeded.

Naklo’s opponent was Oklahoma State’s Alana Wolfberg, a junior out of Orlando who, like Naklo, has NCAA Championship experience. As a sophomore in 2021, Wolfberg qualified for the individual singles championships and finished the season ranked 61st in the nation.

In a tight opening set, the 17th-seeded Wolfberg won 6-4 and used that momentum well into the second. While the following set was another competitive affair, it was the OSU player that came out on top, as Wolfberg upset Naklo 7-5 to move onto the quarterfinals. Wolfberg would eventually reach the semifinals along with teammate Sofia Rojas, but both were eliminated at that stage.

Naklo had a winning streak of eight matches at the regional championships coming into the match against Wolfberg. Across her four years as a Cyclone, she compiled a record of 9-2 at the regional tournament and reached at least the round of 16 in all three of her appearances.

The star senior will have to wait until the spring to get back to the postseason’s big dance in the form of the NCAA Championships.

Iowa State’s season will continue at the ITA Fall National Championships in San Diego, California. The season-ending tournament is set to kick off on Nov. 3.