Cyclones set for rematch with No. 14 Longhorns


Daniel Jacobi II

Sofia Cabezas receives the ball close to the net during her match against Drake University at the Roger Knapp Tennis Center on Jan. 14, 2023.

Iowa State tennis is back on the road this weekend as they prepare to take on another pair of nationally-ranked opponents; No. 14 Texas and No. 59 Baylor.

The Cyclones (12-2), who checked in at No. 6 in the Intercollegiate Tennis Association’s poll Tuesday, have had a strong start to the conference campaign. Iowa State is 2-0 in Big 12 dual play, having previously beaten Kansas and Kansas State at home by score lines of 6-1 and 4-2 respectively.

Iowa State had a few of its players finish with undefeated marks in their opening round of Big 12 duals, as junior Sofia Cabezas and sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru both registered 4-0 records across their singles and doubles matches.

Kajuru has elevated her game to a higher level in this season, as she has just one loss during the spring campaign with a 12-1 record. Playing primarily in the No. 2 singles spot, Kajuru has shot up the national rankings over the course of this season, and now sports the No. 53 ranking in the country.

“It think she’s in a really good place [at the moment],” head coach Boomer Saia said on Kajuru’s level of play. “It’s one of those kind of flow situations [that I think] Chie Kezuka had last year, where you’re just in a really good flow with your tennis. It’s kind of like a pitcher that’s thrown a no-hitter, and they just keep throwing quality inning after quality inning.”

In doubles, Kajuru and freshman Xinyi Nong are currently second on the Cyclones’ depth chart, and have collected big points for their team during this dual season. The duo have a record of 6-1 together, and took the opening pair of conference matches last time out by decisive scorelines. They first beat Kansas’ Tamari Gagoshidze and Maria Titova 6-1, and then cleared Kansas State’s Rozalia Gruszczynska and Rosanna Maffei by the same scoreline.

Saia complemented Nong’s improvements over the last three months, highlighting the difficulties of getting into the lineup at such a young age.

“It’s always tough being a January freshman, because there’s a lot thrown at you,” Saia said. “And to be honest she’s handled it terrifically. We kind of put those two together, and it’s worked out really well. I think their gamestyles compliment each other so well, and there’s just such a really good flow on match day.”

The Cyclones have the hopes of qualifying for a third consecutive trip to the NCAA Championships, all of which have come under Saia’s tenure. The road to that goal has been tested time and again this season, and the Cyclones will see their next big test in a rematch against the Longhorns.

Iowa State and Texas previously squared off in the quarter finals of the ITA Indoor National Championships in February. Over the course of a tense tie, the Cyclones proved to be the victors thanks to big wins in singles play, and beat the then top-ranked Longhorns for the first time in school history, 4-3.

The Cyclones will be looking to get points on the board through their strong doubles play thus far in the season. Iowa State is 11-0 this season in matches where they clinched the doubles point first, and also have an 85% winning mark from the No. 2 and 3 teams.

Along with Kajuru and Nong, the Cyclones have experimented with seven different doubles combinations in 2023, and currently have two ranked in the top 75 in the nation. Kajuru and Kezuka are ranked 45th, while junior Thasaporn Naklo and sophomore Anna Supapitch Kuearum are at the No. 52 spot.

“The nice thing about our team this year is that we have three quality doubles teams. We’ve even got two great doubles players that aren’t even in the lineup right now [Kristine Xie and Chie Kezuka]. To have practice with eight players that can play terrific doubles, I think you grow in those moments.”

Cabezas, along with Kajuru, is a continuation of the doubles-dominance that the Cyclones have served out to their opponents over this season. The junior from Venezuela sports a record of 16-6 in doubles play this season across four different partners.

This spring, Cabezas reunited with fellow junior Miska Kadleckova, her partner from last season. The duo had a historic season in 2021-22 for Iowa State, as they became the first doubles pairing to qualify for the NCAA Championships.

They finished last season with a 21-10 record, and recorded an upset in the first round of the Championships by taking down South Carolina’s Sarah Hamner and Lisa Malkin. Hamner and Malkin were ranked within the top-40 in the country at the time marking the win as the Iowa State pair’s best over a ranked opponent.

Cabezas and Kadleckova have run it back again in successful fashion for the Cyclones so far this season, as they own a record of 8-2 in dual play. The duo have played primarily at the No. 3 spot this season, and went 2-0 in their pair of matches in the second position.

Last time out against the Wildcats, Cabezas and Kadleckova handed Aleen Qamar and Florentine Dekkers a “bagel” by winning the match 6-0. The victory also meant that Cabezas was the fourth player this season to reach the milestone of 100 career wins, joining Kadleckova, Naklo and Kajuru.

Saia spoke of the growth that he’s seen in Cabezas’ form during this season, as well as the keys to her partnership with Kadleckova.

“It’s been an awesome season to watch Sofia raise her game,” Saia said. “She came back after a tough sophomore year, and was very motivated. She put in a lot of time, and just a considerate effort towards being strong mentally, and buying into how she wanted to play. [Adding] those two things together, she’s showing us what she can really do.”

Saia highlighted the chemistry that Cabezas and Kadleckova share on court being a factor to their success.

“This their, roughly, third year in some sort of facet playing with each other,” Saia said of the partnership. “They’re very familiar with each other. [To know] when you’re going to move, when you’re going to lob, things like that matter. There’s a doubles rapport, and you get used to playing with somebody, and so they probably have the most experience together.”

The Cyclones’ opponents in Texas and Baylor feature a combined eight players or pairs listed in the latest national rankings. The Longhorns, who have four of their singles players within the top 25, have suffered two other losses on the year after falling to Iowa State by dropping matches against Stanford and Oklahoma State.

Texas, as the defending Big 12 and NCAA team champions, have never lost to the Cyclones at home, and sport a 26-1 all-time record against them. The Longhorns most recently also beat Kansas 6-1, with Charlotte Chavatipon going 2-0 by winning both of her matches. Pairing with Sabina Zeynalova, the No. 27-ranked duo registered a 6-1 win over the Jayhawks’ Gagoshidze and Titova.

The Longhorns have five players who have won at least 10 games in singles during the spring campaign, with No. 66-ranked Chavatipon sporting a record of 11-5. Junior Malaika Rapolu is Texas’ strongest in the singles game with a 17-7 record, and is 3-1 at the No. 5 spot in the lineup.

Baylor enters Sunday’s matchup against the Cyclones above 0.500 with a 10-9 record in dual play. The Bears started off 2023 with a 5-0 record, but have yet to register a win over a ranked opponent, losing to No. 1 Texas at the ITA Kickoff in January, No. 18 Florida and No. 25 Wisconsin in February, and No. 25 Arizona State, No. 20 Oklahoma and No. 19 Kansas this month.

The Bears’ highest ranked player in the national polls is Isabella Harvison, who sports a 13-7 record on the year and is at the No. 94 spot in the national polls. Harvison has mainly featured in the top half of Baylor’s lineup, going 3-4 and 5-2 at the No. 1 and 2 spots respectively.

Saia is once again expecting a battle come this weekend in the form of Texas and Baylor, a message that he sent to his team as well.

“I told them that we need to expect Texas’ best effort,” Saia said. “They’re playing at home, we beat them earlier in the season, and to be honest, any team we play, we should expect their best effort. If we step all together, I think we’ll have a great chance to win against the Longhorns.”

The Cyclones will first face off against the Longhorns at 2 p.m. on Friday in Austin, Texas. The team will then take on the Bears at noon on Sunday in Waco, Texas. Live-streams and stat updates for both matches can be found here.