Three Big Takeaways: Cyclone tennis picks up 4-1 NCAA Tournament win


Daniel Jacobi II

Miska Kadleckova (left) and Sofia Cabezas (right) embrace after defeating UCLA’s Fangran Tian and Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer, ultimately giving Iowa State the doubles point in the third round of the NCAA D1 Women’s Tennis Championship tournament in Ames, IA, on Friday, May 12, 2023.

Adarsh Tamma, Sports Reporter

Iowa State tennis marched on in the NCAA Tournament Friday afternoon, as they defeated UCLA 4-1 at home to advance to their first Elite Eight in program history. The Cyclones earned their 12th win over a top-50 opponent by sweeping the Bruins in the season series.

The No. 12 Cyclones finished off the No. 20 Bruins in front of a passionate home crowd at the Ames High School Tennis Complex to break into the final eight. It was the second time that Iowa State had beaten UCLA this year, as they had previously come back down 3-0 against the Bruins in their journey to qualifying for the ITA Indoor National Championships.

For UCLA, who won national championships in 2008 and 2014 under current head coach Stella Sampras-Webster, the loss marked just the fifth time in 26 seasons that her team finished outside the top-10 in the NCAA Championships.

Iowa State started things off strong in doubles play, winning on Courts 2 and 3 to take their 21st doubles point of the year. The Cyclones continued their momentum into singles play, where they got a quick win on Court No. 2 before battling at the remaining spots to ultimately seal the win.

Senior Thasaporn Naklo capped off her final home match with a win at the No. 1 spot, grinding out a tough win over UCLA’s Fangran Tian. Junior Sofia Cabezas put the finishing touch on the victory by clinching her fourth match of the year on Court No. 5, as she claimed a straight sets win over the Bruins’ Sasha Vagramov.

Head coach Boomer Saia, showered with an ice bath by his players following the match, was ecstatic in victory.

“To watch a group of special individuals put it on the line here in front of 200 people, to go make finals site, it’s cool.” Saia said, “I am elated. I’m so happy for our group, our staff for Iowa State athletics. The vision we had, to see that come to fruition, and [now we’re] competing for a national title, legitimately.”

Cyclones rebound to take doubles point

Entering Friday’s match, the Cyclones were 0-1 against the Bruins in doubles play, as they were swept the last two teams met in January.

On paper, the Cyclones and Bruins featured three doubles pairs in the national rankings. Freshman Xinyi Nong and sophomore Ange Oby Kajuru, ranked 77th in the nation, took on UCLA’s Sasha Vagramov and Ava Catanzarite on Court No. 2.

Nong and Kajuru never trailed in their match, and handed their opponents a 6-0 defeat. The Iowa State pair held their serve throughout the one-set match, jumping out to leads of 3-0 and 5-0 by also breaking Vagramov and Catanzarite’s serve three times. The win was the 15th of the dual meet season, as they also retained a perfect record of 3-0 in postseason play.

Naklo and sophomore Anna Supaptich Kueraum co-headlined a No. 1 Court showdown with UCLA’s Kimmi Hance and Elise Wagle. The Bruins pair entered the match with a 21-7 record, No. 7 ranking in the nation, and had just been voted the Pac 12’s Doubles Pair of the Year.

In a reversal of the No. 2 match, the Bruins were the ones to jump out early and hold onto the lead for good. Hance and Wagle got big interceptions at the front of the net to put points away, and relied on big serves as well to ultimately get a 6-0 win.

All eyes were now on the No. 3 court, where Cabezas and fellow junior Miska Kadleckova faced off against Anne-Christine Lutkemeyer and Fangran Tian. Playing their 23rd match together this season, Cabezas and Kadleckova earned a 3-1 lead in the first half of the frame. The Bruins tried to mount a comeback and got the score to 3-2, but from there the Iowa State pair went on a three-game run.

Receiving for the match at 5-2, Cabezas and Kadleckova got the score to 40-15 before putting away Lutkemeyer and Tran to earn their 15th win of the year. The pair gave Iowa State the early lead on a 6-2 scoreline.

Saia talked about the importance of his team’s mental focus when it came to approaching doubles play.

“We were hungry,” Saia said. “We talked about how our mindsets needed to be right going into that doubles, and man we came out ready to go. [Courts] 2 and 3 put a big point on the board, and that carries a lot of momentum in these kinds of matches. We talked a lot about winning 51, 52% of those points, and it’s going to swing our way. This is our last home match, so I just told them to empty the tank, and they sure did.”

The Cyclones extended their season record to 20-1 when winning the doubles point.

Kajuru and Naklo deliver on the top two courts

The Cyclones boosted their team score in singles play, extending a 3-1 lead over UCLA thanks to big wins at the No. 1 and 2 spots.

Kajuru was the first Iowa State player to finish her match, as she earned a 6-4, 6-1 win over Kimmi Hance. The Japanese player established a 4-1 lead over Hance, who had lost to her opponent when the pair met back in January.

Hance got the score to 5-4, capitalizing on her opponents’ unforced errors to pull within striking distance. Kajuru, ranked 66th in the nation, held her own in the following game to take the first set on a 6-4 scoreline.

The second frame was nearly all Kajuru, as she built up a 3-0 lead. The sophomore never trailed, and ultimately capped off Iowa State’s first singles point with just one game given up. Kajuru’s win was her 25th of the season. The sophomore has been the model of consistency for the Cyclones, as she has now won 20 of her last 23 matches.

UCLA got its first point of the match at No. 3 singles, with Catanzarite defeating Kaldeckova in straight sets. Kadleckova led the first 3-1, but Catanzarnite battled back to neutralize the score at 3-3, then again at 4-4. The Bruin player scrapped out the next two games to take the opening set 6-4.

Catanzarite again trailed Kaleckova in the second, who held an initial 2-1 lead. The Bruin eventually made the score 4-5, then earned a break to get to 5-5. From there, it was all Catanzarite, as she handed Kadleckova just her fifth loss in dual play by a score of 7-5.

Saia remarked on the emotional journey that he experienced throughout singles play, as the Bruins attempted to mount a comeback in the team score with play shifting over to the remaining four matches.

“I wasn’t even relieved, I was so excited,” Saia said of his thoughts following the third singles win. “To beat a historically amazing program like UCLA, two times in a season, that just speaks to our kids’ character, there were a lot of matches that could’ve gone either way.”

Naklo faced off in a rematch with Tian on the No. 1 Court, as the UCLA player had handed the Thailand native a 6-1, 6-2 loss last time out. Both players entered the match with national rankings (No. 60 for Naklo and 14 for Tian), and as qualifiers for the individual singles championships.

Naklo and Tian put on a show in the first set, as the UCLA player came back twice to set up a tiebreaker. Naklo initially led 3-1, but Tian took the next two games to make it 3-3. The Cyclone player again went up 4-3 and then 5-4, but Tian clawed her way back to tie things up at five a-piece.

In her third lead of the match, Naklo was up 6-5 with a chance to seal the match, but Tian saved another big point for the Bruins to send the match to a tiebreaker. In that best-of-seven points, Naklo was able to take the first set on a 7-3 scoreline to bring Iowa State closer to a third point.

In a one-sided second frame, Naklo never trailed, and put up a 3-0 lead over Tian. She eventually put away Tian, the reigning Pac 12 Freshman of the Year, 6-0. The loss was just the second of Tian’s season, as she entered the match with a 16-1 mark.

“Naklo beat a kid who I think only has one dual match loss this year,” Saia said. “What this group continues to do is amazing, and I’m so lucky to be a part of it.”

Cabezas caps it off

Naklo and Cabezas’ matches finished within a couple of minutes of each other, as all eyes shifted to the No. 5 court and the last moments of that match.

Cabezas and Vagramov had not played each other this season, as they had played on separate courts in the previous matchup between the two teams. Cabezas beat Vanessa Ong 7-6, 6-3 in the January matchup, while Vagramov fell to Chie Kezuka on Court No. 6, 2-6, 1-6.

Cabezas trailed in the first set 0-1, but won the next two games to take her first lead of the match. The Valencia, Venezuela native took control of things from that point forward, taking the first set 6-2.

In the second, Cabezas found herself up 3-0 and eventually held a 5-4 advantage after battling through a few games. Having three match points in the next game with the score at 40-15, Cabezas was unable to put it away as Vagramov made the score 5-5.

“It’s tough to stay in the match after you lose an important game like that,” Cabezas said. “But I was just trying to keep fighting for my teammates.”

Cabezas, who finished the regular season as the Big 12 No. 5 Singles Individual Champion, talked about the close bond that she has with her teammates and coaches, saying that it goes beyond the tennis court.

“I love them, they’re my family,” Cabezas said. “It’s unbelievable what we’ve accomplished. When I’m out there, I’m not fighting for just a friend, they’re my family, they’re my sisters.”

Cabezas reset at 5-5, and kept her resolve to clinch her fourth dual match of the year. The junior pushed her lead to 6-5, and again stood on the brink of giving Iowa State the win. 

Serving for the match in that final game, Cabezas put Vagramov by forcing her to play a lob towards the front of the court, then providing the final smash in the right service court to send her team to the Elite Eight for the first time ever.

“I think she’s been in those moments before, and maybe came up a little short,” Saia said. “She’s up 5-4, and 40-15, and let three match points get away maybe, and she just responds instantly. For that kid to, again what we preach, [fight through] adversity, you keep responding and don’t be defined by your situation.”

Cabezas spoke of the added specialness of clinching the match at home, as she earned her 13th win of the year in the process.

“Last week, we were watching the match, Duke against UCLA, and when we knew that we were going to play at home, it was just unbelievable,” Cabezas said. “The crowd here, they’re special and they really feel for us.”

Cabezas and the Cyclones took another leap into program history with Friday’s win, earning their 21st victory in a season of firsts. On top of reaching the Elite Eight, the Cyclones had never made the NCAA Tournament prior to Saia’s arrival to Ames, and have since rattled off three consecutive trips to the postseason, including this year.

Saia remarked on the sky being the limit for his team, who have broken through to play their best tennis in the biggest moments all season.

“I think we’re peaking,” Saia said. “That’s what you want, that’s what we preach. We want to peak in April and May, and this group’s coming together. Just finding ways [to win], and that ‘s the Cyclone mentality.

The Cyclones will travel down to Orlando for the quarterfinals of the NCAA Championships. The Cyclones’ next match will be against either No. 3 North Carolina State or Auburn, who face off against each other at noon Saturday in Raleigh, North Carolina. The final three rounds of the NCAA Tournament will all be played at the USTA National Campus in Orlando, with the quarterfinals starting on May 17.