Three Big Takeaways: Naklo, Kezuka scale new heights during fall season


Jacob Rice

Members of the Iowa State tennis team huddle together during the Cyclones’ match against the Oklahoma Sooners April 8.

Adarsh Tamma, Sports Reporter

Iowa State tennis wrapped up their fall season this past weekend with strong performances across the board, as Cyclone athletes won titles in both singles and doubles at the Big 12 Fall Invite. 

Add to that a first-time appearance by a couple of Cyclones at the ITA Fall National Championships, and the Cyclone coaching staff will have plenty to ponder over the break before the spring season. While no official schedule has been announced as of yet, Iowa State will be playing in the 2023 ITA Kickoff Weekend event in Florida, the team announced over the summer.

This fall season saw the whole of Iowa State’s roster return from the squad that made back-to-back trips to the NCAA Championships last spring. Over a mixture of professional and collegiate tournaments, the Cyclones were tested against some of the best tennis talent in the country.

Naklo and Kezuka reach career milestones

Seniors Thasaporn Naklo and Chie Kezuka both played in their final fall seasons as Cyclones this semester, and both scaled new heights in their respective collegiate careers. The pair of athletes were heavily involved in Iowa State’s achievements in both the singles and doubles disciplines.

Naklo created history last season when she became the first Cyclone player to reach both the ITA Fall National Championships and NCAA Championships in the same season. This season, she reached another goal by becoming the 17th player in program history to record 100 overall career wins across singles and doubles. 

The Bangkok, Thailand, native defeated Florida State’s Mila Saric in the first round of the ITA All-American Championships’ qualifying tournament. In an encounter between two of the top 100-ranked singles players in the country, it was No. 39 Naklo who came out on top by a 6-1, 7-5 scoreline.

Naklo’s hopes of returning to the Fall Championships were dashed at the ITA Regional Tournament when as the No. 1 overall seed, she lost to Oklahoma State’s Alana Wolfberg in a tight three-setter in the round of 16. Despite this loss, Naklo finished off her season strong, taking the singles title at the Big 12 Fall Series in her return to Stillwater while also finishing runners-up in the doubles with Anna Supapitch Kuearum. The pair lost out to teammates Sofia Cabezas and Miska Kadleckova 7-5.

“I think I did pretty well, and I had a lot of fun,” Naklo said of her performances at the last tournament.

When speaking of playing with Kuearum in doubles, she said, “We were really having fun. I was talking to her [Kuearum] after we won the semifinal. We really didn’t think about winning or losing. We were just having fun, so I think that was one of the biggest parts that helped us do well.”

Naklo hardly dropped a set in her run to the title, and she defeated Kuearum quite convincingly, 6-1, 6-1. Now heading into her final spring season, Naklo has been looking forward to working on improving her strengths.

“I will prepare more on the physical side [of things], and also [some] techniques that I need to improve,” Naklo said.

Kezuka made a career highlight this fall by continuing a lineage in the program’s recent history. She and teammate Ange Oby Kajuru became the third Iowa State pairing in two years to qualify for the ITA Fall National Championships. The pair finished the week in San Diego with a 1-2 record, producing an upset win in the process by defeating North Carolina State’s Nell Miller and Amelia Rajecki 10-6 in a deciding set tiebreak.

For Kezuka, the trip out west was not only valuable in the time spent on court with her teammate, but also off it as well.

“It was fun, really fun. I enjoyed playing with her [Kajuru],” Kezuka said on being on court with Kajuru. “It was a good opportunity to watch people playing too, like other players and the men’s [tournament] all playing in the same venue.”

Kezuka also achieved success with Kadleckova, as the pair teamed up at the beginning of the season for the Milwaukee Tennis Classic. In their first tournament together, the duo made a run all the way to the final, where they lost out to USC’s No. 1 seeds, Madison Sieg and Naomi Cheong 6-1.

Now facing her last season at Iowa State as well, Kezuka hopes to gradually improve her level of play before the start of the spring season. The Fujisawa, Japan, native said of her offseason plans, “I will do one hundred percent [effort] each day, and I will try to improve one percent better and better.”

“I think for me, I’m trying to improve my aggressiveness [on court],” Kezuka said. “I try to be aggressive in any way, even though I don’t hit that hard. I try to mix slices or lobs and then try to go forward more, and I think I’m focusing more on my position [on court].”

What can Kajuru do for you?

Sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru produced a standout season for herself and produced multiple major wins across both professional and collegiate tournaments.

While she capped off her fall season by being a first-time qualifier at ITA Fall Nationals along with Kezuka, Kajuru also created an upset win against two of the country’s best doubles players earlier in the season.

At the ITA All-American Championships, Kajuru and Kadleckova defeated Syracuse’s Miyuka Kimoto and Polina Kozyreva. The Orange ranked No. 11 in the country and had also qualified for the NCAA Championships last spring together.

Kezuka and Kadleckova had also not qualified for the main draw due to their performances in the qualifying rounds but were given an invitation regardless. The pairing made the most of their opportunity, as they took down their ranked opponents 7-6, 6-1 and knocked the sixth seeds out.

In the round of 16, Kezuka and Kadleckova battled again and nearly produced another upset to advance to the quarterfinals. Facing off against Miller and Rajecki of NC State, they won the first set 6-4 before their opponents responded with a 6-2 decision in the second. A 10-point tiebreak followed, with the Cyclones rallying to make the score 7-7, but Miller and Rajecki closed the deal and took the match 10-7.

In singles, Kajuru was the Cyclones’ most successful player at the ITA Regionals, making a quarterfinals run after not dropping a set through her first three matches. That result was reversed against Oklahoma State’s Sofia Rojas, who moved onto the semis after winning 7-5, 6-3.

Kajuru also made waves at the W15 Hilton Head Tournament in South Carolina. Before the remainder of the tournament was canceled due to Hurricane Ian, Kajuru reached the quarterfinals after winning her first two matches. In the first round against Virginia Tech’s Tamara Barad Itzhaki, the No. 8 seed in the draw, Kajuru served up a double bagel, 6-0, 6-0. 

That was followed by an exciting three-setter against former Arkansas player Kelly Keller. The wild card took the first set 6-3 after building a commanding 5-1 lead, but Kajuru attempted a comeback by winning two consecutive games. Kajuru powered through the second and third games and took the match by score lines of 6-1 and 6-4, respectively.

Doubles mixup

As highlighted, much of the Cyclones’ roster was scrambled around throughout the season, resulting in most of the roster playing with one another for the first time. It was a nearly all-hands-on-deck situation all season long for Iowa State, as the coaching staff tinkered various combinations in preparation for the upcoming spring season.

Kajuru seemed to be the most wide-reaching of players, as she partnered up with Kezuka, Kadleckova and Kueraum. With Kuearum, Kajuru went on a run toward the semifinals of the West Texas Pro Tennis Open in September. 

The pairing pressured the top seeds in the draw, Chieh-Yu Hsu and Maria Kononova, sending the match to a tiebreaker by winning the second set 6-3. In the race to ten points, it was the more experienced Hsu and Kononova who crossed the finish line first, taking the match 10-7.

Kadleckova started out the year with a second-place showing in Milwaukee alongside Kezuka and finished it by taking the doubles title at the Big 12 Fall Series with Sofia Cabezas. Kadleckova and Cabezas, like Naklo, have been at the forefront of the Cyclones’ journey to the biggest stages of the collegiate tennis pyramid. The pairing was the first to reach the ITA Fall National Championships last season and also punched their ticket to the NCAA Championships behind their strong play in the No. 1 doubles spot.

The only player not to play doubles was senior Christin Hsieh, who made her return to the court after missing the start of the fall season due to injury. At the ITA All-American tournament, Hsieh lost her first-round match but rallied in the consolation rounds to win that bracket.

Whether there is an alchemy to figuring out the factors that can create the strongest doubles pair available can be up for debate, but one thing does seem to be certain–the Cyclone players seemed to have been able to play their best in the biggest moments.

Three national championship doubles qualifiers in two years are a success that the program has rarely seen in the past, and the Cyclones have produced all of these doubles victories with virtually the same squad.

When asked why the program has been able to produce a strong doubles game, Kezuka mentioned in the past the theme of flexibility in game strategy being key to the team’s success.

“We make changes before [facing] our opponents, for example, either poaching or lobbing [the ball] or going to the frontcourt more,” Kezuka said. “Making the change [during] the rally is the key [reason] that we have succeeded in these past two years.”

Iowa State will return to the court in January.