By Andy Stubblefield, ISU Athletics Communications
As Annabella Bonadonna stands close to the net, she lets a ball from her opponent get past her. Not because she can’t reach it, but because she knows her teammate has her back. Maty Cancini rockets home a doubles point that lands just inside the line and she shares an emphatic high five and a smile with her partner.
How did Bonadonna know Cancini would be there? It’s just always been that way.
Both Cyclones hail from the northern portion of Venezuela, not far from the coast of the Caribbean Sea, and have played tennis together since they were 10 years old. Despite their hometowns residing about two hours apart, the duo formed an inseparable bond.
Cancini and Bonadonna linked up for the first time at the South American, a tournament featuring three boys and three girls from ten countries on the continent.
“We were representing our country and they put us to play together,” Cancini said. “After that tournament, we liked it so much we started playing together all the time.”
For years, the two wreaked havoc on doubles duos across the country, often playing against pairs above their age division just to play competition on the same level as they were.
“We were playing against a pair that was really good and much older than us and they thought they would beat us super easy,” Cancini said. “We won the first set, but lost the second set. We went to a third set and we ended up winning.”
“Their coach got so upset because he couldn’t believe it that he walked back from the courts to the hotel. It was dark and Venezuela can be pretty dangerous, but he just couldn’t believe it.”
That duo was the first seed in the tournament and hailed from the same Caracas tennis club Bonadonna played at growing up, The Federation.
“He was also my coach because we were from the same academy, so he shouldn’t have gotten that mad, but he did,” Bonadonna said.
When tournaments were played near Valencia, Cancini’s hometown, Bonadonna would spend the night with the Cancini family. When tournaments were played near Caracas, the Bonadonna family would return the favor.
The power of sports brought two families, from two different cities, together.
“After tournaments we would vacation together at the beach, and our moms became very good friends,” Cancini said. “[Bonadonna] became very close with my brother, as well.”
“We are all one family,” Bonadonna added.
Being a year older than Cancini, Bonadonna was the first to make the 2,692 mile move from Venezuela to Ames to play tennis at Iowa State. Not only was she going to have to play with a new doubles partner, an entire new set of challenges awaited her.
On top of all the commitments of adjusting to life as a student-athlete, Bonadonna had to overcome a language barrier and adjust to a new culture.
“For that first year, I was kind of lost,” Bonadonna said. “One of the biggest challenges for me was the culture. In Latin-America you are super loud, you’re more outgoing. But here, everyone is more quiet and reserved.”
A year later, when Cancini committed to Iowa State, Bonadonna was ecstatic that she was going to be reunited with her best friend. Coming to America, Cancini also struggled adapting to a new culture.
“If you’re at the library, sometimes you don’t realize that you’re talking loud,” Cancini said. “You don’t want to be rude, but at the same time, I didn’t know that I was doing it. That part was hard.”
Unlike Bonadonna, Cancini had someone to lean on and the strength of their relationship only deepened during their time in Ames.
“[Bonadonna] was basically like my guide here,” Cancini said. “I would ask Bella for everything. She could tell me what to do, where to go. Anything could happen and I know she’s was going to be there for me.”
“She’s my family here,” Bonadonna said. “She’s the one person that I can be closer to because my family is back home. She makes me feel safe and home.”
Ames has always been a safe haven for the two. The community welcomed the pair with open arms and made the adjustment to life away from home all the easier.
“I always felt really welcome here in Iowa,” Cancini said. “Sometimes when you go to different states, if they see you’re international they try to make it harder. I felt like everyone here always tried to help me and that was really cool. I’m very happy that I came to Iowa State.”
On the tennis courts, the South American duo is working to right the ship that is the Iowa State tennis program, and the two are certainly making an impact.
“I don’t think we could have done many of the things we’ve done this year without their leadership,” head coach Boomer Saia said. “They do a good job of leading by example, especially when we’re out there competing.”
This is Cancini and Bonadonna’s third season at Iowa State together, but it is the first time the two are doubles partners while wearing the Cardinal and Gold. The move was obvious for Saia, a first-year head coach for the Cyclones.
“They both have natural abilities in doubles,” Saia said. “They played together growing up so they know instinctively the way they move together on the court. They are comfortable with one another and they compliment each other very well.”
The move quickly paid off for the Cyclones as the duo raced out to a 16-4 doubles record to begin their season. The hot start included a streak where the pair won five straight matches.
Cancini and Bonadonna have lead the charge to change the culture of the Cyclone tennis program with their individual play, as well.
Bonadonna currently has a 156-84 career record for the Cyclones and sits in second on Iowa State’s overall career wins list. Not only is the senior closing in on the record, she has the fewest losses of anyone in the top 15. Kathy Reising sits atop the list, just two wins ahead of Bonadonna.
Cancini made Iowa State tennis history after she advanced to the quarterfinals of ITA Regionals in October, the farthest a Cyclone has ever made it in the tournament. The junior’s run included a victory over then-ranked No. 73 Marina Guinart of Oklahoma State in the round of 32.
The effort earned Cancini the highest ranking in school history, claiming the No. 74 spot in the final fall ITA Rankings.
Both Venezuelans have cemented themselves in Cyclone Tennis history, but hope to be remembered for much more than that.
“I hope be a role model for the team,” Cancini said. “Show them how to fight when it might not be easy or when you face some adversity. You have to keep fighting when things aren’t going well, and that’s how you begin to change the culture.”