No. 12 Iowa State set to host TCU, Texas Tech in senior-week matches


Daniel Jacobi II

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

Adarsh Tamma, Sports Reporter

Iowa State tennis will host a pair of matches for the final time this season, with nationally-ranked TCU and Texas Tech both coming to town Friday and Sunday to finish out the Big 12 regular season.

The No. 12 Cyclones slipped out of the national top-10 Tuesday for the first time since Feb. 1, when they were placed at 14th in the polls. Iowa State heads into this weekend’s dual matches sitting at fourth in the Big 12 standings, as its 4-2 record in conference play trails No. 18 Oklahoma State, No. 16 Oklahoma and No. 10 Texas, the last of whom are the defending national champions.

This weekend will also mark “senior week” for three of Iowa State’s players, as Thasaporn Naklo, Chie Kezuka and Christin Hsieh will all graduate in May. All three players arrived to Ames the same season and have been part of many of the team’s high points over the four years, including its first two trips to the NCAA Championships in 2021 and 2022. 

“I think that all three of them were extremely talented players but wanted to come be part of something special,” Iowa State head coach Boomer Saia said on recruiting the senior trio. “That was a big pitch in the recruiting process, of coming [here] and doing something special, something that’s never been done. [Them] leaning on us and Kenna [Kilgo], and trusting us and our vision of what could be here, it was really neat to see them take that leap of faith and chance.”

Since 2019, Iowa State has been slowly increasing its win count, and with that came breaking new ground. The Cyclones had a record of 9-5 in 2020 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the rest of the season, then went 14-8 the next year to qualify for the NCAA Championships for the first time in school history. Senior Maty Cancini was also key to the Cyclones’ success, finishing her collegiate career with the most number of wins in school history at 160.

In 2021-22 the team established a new program record for wins at 16, qualify their first individual entries in both singles and doubles and return back to the NCAA Championships. The Cyclones were then defeated by South Carolina 4-0.

Naklo, Kezuka and Hsieh were all key contributors to Iowa State’s success last season, with each player finishing with a double-digit win total in singles and doubles. The trio won a combined 236 matches for the Cyclones over the last four years.

“I’m excited, but at the same time, a little bit sad,” Naklo said on her final collegiate season. “I just feel like time has flown by.”

Naklo has been the Cyclones’ ace over the last two years, playing primarily at the No. 1 spot against some of the best players in the country. The Bangkok, Thailand native made history as a junior last season by becoming the first Iowa State player to qualify for the NCAA Championships and finished with a 23-13 record in singles play.

The NCAA Championships saw Naklo beat Virginia’s Elaine Chervinsky 6-4, 6-2 in the first round, then fall to Abigail Rencheli of North Carolina State in a three-setter. She finished the season ranked 55th in the nation, the highest in Iowa State history.

This season, Naklo has again broken new ground in her collegiate tennis career, reaching 100 career victories during the fall season and earning wins against ranked opponents. Naklo’s wins over Miami’s Alexa Noel and Texas’ Nicole Khirin helped the Cyclones earn upsets over both programs.

Naklo said while she never envisioned the level of success that her team would have this season, the building blocks were there at the end of last year. The No. 56-ranked singles player pointed to the level of energy that she and her teammates are playing with this year as one of the reasons why.

“I think that there are a couple of things, but the main thing that we talked about is [playing with energy], and also cheering [for each other],” Naklo said. “For me, cheering is really big. I think this year, we have been so loud and cheering so loud for each other. I think that helped us be more motivated to play well.”

Naklo also stated that she hopes to continue her tennis career after college, with plans to turn professional following this last year with Iowa State.

Like Naklo, Kezuka joined the 100-win club earlier this year and has also been a go-to player for the Cyclones over the last four years. The Fujisawa, Japan native had her strongest season last year as a junior, finishing the season with an overall record of 47-9 and capturing Iowa State’s first individual conference championship.

Kezuka’s final season as a Cyclone has again seen her come up big in key moments. Against then-ninth-ranked Vanderbilt at the ITA Indoor National Championships, Kezuka clinched the match at the No. 6 singles spot by defeating the Commodores’ Amy Stevens in a tiebreaker, 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (7-3). She and Naklo rank among the top-15 in program history for combined career wins at 115 and 137, respectively, as well as in the top 10 of singles victories.

Kezuka pointed to the camaraderie that she and her teammates have with one another as the main source of success over the past two years.

“I think for me, the biggest difference [between last year and this year] are the relationships with each other,” Kezuka said. “I think we got closer and spent more time outside of the courts, and we got to know each other more and more. I think that the cheering part is also big for me. From seeing other teammates cheer for me, we could feel that they really want me to win, and I think that’s also a big part. The last thing is that we believe in each other more. I hear from everyone that we can really do well, that we can really achieve more than before.”

Kezuka also said that it was difficult to choose a single moment from her collegiate career as her favorite and instead wants to remember the history that the team made together.

“There are so many things that we accomplished that Iowa State had never done before,” Kezuka said. “For example, we beat Baylor at their home court for the first time, or we beat Texas for the first time, or Oklahoma State for the first time. I think that every single thing that we accomplished is something that will be my happiest memories that I have, and I think that it’s hard to choose.”

Hsieh entered this season with doubts on when she would return to court, as she has struggled with injury since the end of last season. The Taipei, Taiwan native made her debut in a strong way by earning multiple back-draw victories at the ITA Regional Tournament in October.

Losing in the first round of the main draw, Hsieh recorded five-consecutive wins in the consolation bracket to win it, beating Kansas State’s Rozalia Gruszczynska in the final, coming back from a set down to take it by a scoreline of 4-6, 6-4, 10-7 in a “super-set” tiebreaker.

In dual play, Hsieh has played once each in singles and doubles, going 2-0 in the Cyclones’ opening match of the season against Drake. First pairing up with Naklo in doubles to earn a 6-2 win, Hsieh was also victorious in her singles match against the Bulldogs’ Kendall Hunt, 6-1, 6-2, to help the Cyclones get a 7-0 victory.

Last season, Hsieh found success in doubles with Naklo, as the pair and teammates Sofia Cabezas and Miska Kadleckova became the first doubles pairs to qualify for the ITA Fall National Championships. Hsieh and Naklo lost to Cabezas and Kadleckova that day, but earned ranked victories over No. 54 Maria Titova and Malkia Ngounoue and No. 73 Ting-Pei Chang and Camilla Bossi of West Virginia.

While Hsieh hasn’t seen much playing time in 2023, Kezuka said that she is one of the team’s biggest cheerleaders, motivating them during matches and keeping her teammates loose away from play.

“She keeps us comfortable outside of the court,” Kezuka said of Hsieh. “I think even on the court when we’re playing, she’s loud. I can feel that she wants us to win, and for me, I feel like it’s hard for her to just practice and not have a chance to play. But I think that she doesn’t give us that much of a negative aspect. I think she tries to give us comfort and warmth, and outside of the court she tries to talk to all of us.”

The Cyclones’ first opponent of the weekend, TCU, comes into the match looking to close out its season on a high note as well, entering with an 11-7 record overall. Seven of the Horned Frogs’ last eight opponents have been included in the national polls, and they survived a 4-3 thriller over the Red Raiders to record an upset.

While TCU does not have not any players or pairs ranked in the national polls, it holds the series advantage against Iowa State by having won seven of the nine previous meetings. The Horned Frogs have taken down two nationally-ranked teams this season, having beaten No. 62 SMU 4-1 on March 25.

The Red Raiders have a 3-4 record in Big 12 play compared to TCU’s 2-5 and have also already seen much of the conference’s best earlier in the season. Texas Tech went 0-3 against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Texas, but recorded a 4-3 win over Baylor March 31 to climb near-even with the Bears in the standings.

Texas Tech also has a commanding historical record over Iowa State, going 29-2 against the Cyclones all-time. The Red Raiders have a pair of nationally-ranked entries, with sophomore Avelina Sayfetdinova listed at No. 122 on Tuesday’s singles poll. Sayfetdinova and teammate Metka Komac are also the 36th-ranked doubles duo in the country, posting an 18-7 overall record, including going 11-6 in dual play.

For the Cyclones, they will be looking to their doubles pairings of Naklo and sophomore Anna Supapitch Kuearum, and sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru and freshman Xinyi Nong, who are ranked No. 52 and 57, respectively in the national polls. Both pairs have put up strong wins for Iowa State over the past few months, going a combined 15-6 in 2023.

Naklo and Kajuru have been battle-tested at the No. 1 and 2 spots all season in singles and are slated to go at it again this weekend. The pair are Iowa State’s nationally-ranked singles players at the No. 56 and 74 spots, respectively, with Naklo looking to make the most of her final matches at home.

“I think for me at that moment, I will just enjoy it,” Naklo said. “It’s going to be the last [couple] of matches at home in my last year of college tennis, so I will just enjoy it.”

The Cyclones will face off against the Horned Frogs at 3 p.m. Friday and take on the Red Raiders at noon Sunday. Both matches will be played at the Ames High School Tennis Courts, and in the case of poor weather conditions, will be moved to Life Time Fitness in Urbandale. Live stats of both matches can be found here.