The End of the Road: Q&A with Florida’s Lauren Embree

Article courtesy of John Holt

Committing to play tennis for the University of Florida back in October 2008 will forever be one of the best decisions Lauren Embree has ever made.

Embree, a senior from Marco Island, Fla., arrived in Gainesville as the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit. In 2010, she became the first freshman ever to win SEC Player of the Year. As a sophomore, she clinched Florida’s dramatic 4-3 win over Stanford, which earned the Gators their fifth NCAA title in program history.

Meanwhile, her junior year proved to be even more dominant than the previous two seasons, as she claimed her second SEC Player of the Year honor and once again led UF to an NCAA crown. Most recently, it was announced that Embree was the 2013 SEC Player of the Year, becoming the first player in the 21-year history of the award to receive the conference’s top individual honor three times in a career.

As her storied journey at Florida comes to an end late this month, Embree will surely be remembered as one of college tennis’ all-time greats. Last week I spoke with the three-time All-American about her remarkable Gator career, being ranked as the nation’s top singles player, the upcoming NCAA tournament, childhood memories, post-graduate plans and more.

John Holt: What emotions go through your mind when you hear that less than one month from now your collegiate tennis career will be complete?
LE: If you would have asked me that three years ago, or even last year, I would have been like ‘oh I have some time.’ It’s actually crazy that it’s coming to an end so soon. But I’m really excited and looking forward to the future and what’s next. I’m definitely going to miss playing college tennis and playing for the University of Florida.

JH: Have you taken any time this season to reflect on certain things that you’ve been able to accomplish during your time at Florida? You’ve obviously accomplished so much.
LE: Um, not really. Obviously a couple big things were winning the [Riviera/ITA] All-American Championships. I really wanted to do that before I graduated. Obviously winning the SEC regular season and tournament is something our team really likes to do and strives for. Those are three big things. But, you know, we’re really just looking forward to NCAA’s and hopefully we can do well there and go out strong.

JH: Describe how you’ve seen yourself grow as a player as well as how you’ve seen yourself grow as a person from when you arrived as a freshman back in 2009 up until today?
LE: I’ve definitely matured. Not only as a person, but as a tennis player. I credit my coaches for that, the girls that I’ve been around with every day and just the people that I interact with. Even coming in as a freshman, the whole team setting is completely different than from when you play junior tournaments. You have to adjust and do things for your team and just become, really, a team player. I would literally do anything for the girls on my team. So definitely, being a team player and winning for your team and not just wanting to win for yourself but for other people, and helping other people when they help you is something that I’ve learned throughout these four years.

JH: I know you previously told me you started playing tennis around the age of four or five, but when did you realize you wanted to make the sport a possible career?
LE: I think when I was in high school, when I was 15 or 16. My dad was always my coach up until then. So when I was 16, I moved to Miami with a coach and a family there, one of my best friends growing up who I traveled with. That’s when I kind of realized that I wanted to make it more, I wanted to make it a career at around (age) 16 because I moved away my senior year of high school. I was homeschooled, trying to play in more tournaments and work out more and moved to Miami. So when I was there (in Miami), my coach there really helped me and the family I lived with really helped me get the opportunities that I had from (ages) 16-18.

JH: Were there any doubters or signs of adversity that you had to persevere through along the way?
LE: I think a lot of tennis recruits, before they go to college, they kind of feel as if they want to go to school, or if they just don’t want to go to school, or if they want to go to school for a year, and then leave after a year and turn pro. But I always wanted, and my parents always wanted me to go to school, and go to college and I’m really grateful that I did because a lot of the people that don’t go to college, I’m not saying that it’s bad, but you don’t get to experience a lot of the things that you get to on a college team. So definitely, that decision was life altering on my mind for a long time before I went to school. But I’m happy I made that decision.

JH: After last season you lost Joanna Mather due to graduation, and I guess it was maybe somewhat of a surprise that Allie Will decided to turn pro. On paper whenever a team loses two of their top three players, it usually doesn’t result in being as successful of a season. Yet today, you guys have a 22-2 record, are currently ranked No. 1 nationally, recently won your fourth-straight SEC Tournament Championship and are in a great position to win a third straight NCAA title. Tell me, did you honestly think before the season began that you guys would be sitting where you are today?
LE: We knew it was going to be really difficult to try and do what we did last year, with the strong team that we had. Heading into this year, we had two great freshmen coming in and five returners. So we knew it was possible. At the beginning of the year, we had our struggles, like I said. The great thing about this year is that nothing has been easy. I think that’s what’s made it really special and even better to win the SEC regular season and win the SEC Tournament, and to put ourselves in position to do well at the NCAA Tournament.

JH: I caught up with you after your team was shut out by No. 4 Duke back on Feb. 17. Looking back, do you feel like that loss was a needed wake up call at that point in the season?
LE: Yeah definitely. I think that weekend started the turning point of our season. Obviously we had that Duke loss, and then beating (No. 1) North Carolina (the next day) was a great confidence boost for us. We went on the road a couple of weeks later and lost to Texas A&M. To win the SEC Tournament, to beat A&M, to beat Georgia, again, is an accomplishment that we’re really proud of and hopefully we can just keep it up. But it’s definitely been up and down this season, which has been good and bad, but mostly good and kind of what makes it more special to us.

JH: I’m sure at the end of last year and probably even after your freshman and sophomore seasons, you had the option to leave school early and turn pro. Yet you never did. What was the ultimate deciding factor that made you come back every year?
LE: One, I just wanted to stay loyal to my coaches and my team. I told them that I would be here for four years. So that’s kind of what I wanted to do, was be here for four years and help them as much as I could, win titles and win SEC Championships, and win national championships. So that was a big thing to be loyal to my coaches and the girls on the team. Another thing was that I just wasn’t ready to go and play pro, not only with my tennis but in life. I’m really happy that I stayed all four years because I’ve met people here that have been influential in my life. I was never probably going to leave until I graduated. And, I wanted a degree. I didn’t want to leave school without a degree.

JH: What was your favorite road venue or environment during your four years?
LE: Honestly, I would say NCAA’s my sophomore year at Stanford. They always seem to have a good crowd and playing them in the finals, for a championship, at Stanford, with 2,000 people there, it doesn’t really get much better than that, so I would say that was the biggest thing.

JH: This spring, unlike the first three years of your career, you’ve spent a majority of the season ranked as the nation’s top singles player. What’s that been like for you walking onto the court with a No. 1 ranking beside your name?
LE: It’s definitely exciting to have that my senior year. But to be honest, I don’t really try and think about it that much, or focus on it because then you just think about the wrong things and your mind is in a different spot if you try and focus on your wins and losses, and if you’re ranked 1 that week or 2. So I honestly don’t check the rankings every Tuesday. If they come up on Twitter they’re there or whatever, but I don’t really focus on it. I’m kind of just there to do well for my team when I play every match. I guess you have a spot on your back, everybody wants to beat you. But, you know, that’s fine. You just go out there and play.

JH: Now that the journey is nearly complete is there anything you would go back and change over these last four years? Either from a tennis standpoint or personal.
LE: Not really. I’m trying to think year by year. I think everything, even the negatives, as far as getting hurt my sophomore year has helped me grow as a person and changed me. One thing away from tennis that I’d change is I probably would have taken my harder classes earlier because right now I’m taking a bunch of hard classes, senior year. That’s definitely something that maybe I could have done a little bit better.

JH: Are you still planning to try out the pro tour once you finish up in Gainesville?
LE: Yeah my plan is still to play this summer and play in the fall and to continue to play pro events and see how that goes.

JH: What are you looking forward to most about joining the Pro Tour? Any fears?
LE: It’s probably going to be an adjustment from college. I’m really looking forward to just being focused on tennis and not really having to focus on balancing school, tennis and all of that stuff. It’s going to kind of be like your job once you’re done with college. That’s your career, and your job, so you have to look at it that way. You have to put the hours in and work hard. But I think I’m ready for that next step.

JH: I’m sure there are plenty of young girls out there learning tennis that ultimately have dreams to reach the level of your status in college tennis. If you could pass any advice onto them, what would it be?
LE: I would say the biggest thing I could tell them is to stick with it. Not everything is going to be happy and fun and everything you want, at that time. A big thing for me in high school was going to public high school, having friends who don’t have this commitment to the sport like I did. So I had to kind of balance not going out with my friends, and playing tennis instead, and moving away to play tennis. So I think just sticking with it and if you really want to do it, and be successful, and be a top college player then you have to work for it. It’s not going to come easy. I would say I worked pretty hard in my junior days to have the opportunity to play at a Division I top school like Florida. Have a team of people who support your decisions and just go with it, and work hard, and you’ll get there.

JH: You’ve clearly worked hard and everyone around you knows that. With that being said, what will you miss most about college and what will you miss most about being a student-athlete for the Florida Gators?
LE: One thing I’m going to miss most about college tennis is my team, obviously. My coaches, and being on a team and just having those seven girls on your team, and those two coaches that actually, genuinely want you to win and want you to do well because a lot of people in the juniors and pros, they don’t want you to do well, and they don’t care if you win or lose. So that’s definitely something that I’m going to miss as far as that. Then obviously, being a student-athlete here, I’m going to miss all the other great sports that I’ve had the opportunity to see and the friends that I’ve made that aren’t my tennis friends. To see them succeed is obviously great for Gator Nation and themselves. Then, just having my own routine here — just being with the girls, going to class, hanging out with my boyfriend on chill nights. It’s just taking the next step in your life is something you have to adjust to because you’re so used to your routine in college. But I think I’ll move on and productively adjust to it. But those are definitely some things I’m going to miss.

JH: Finally, how do you hope anyone that saw you play over the last four years remembers you?
LE: I think people will remember me as just a fighter, a team player. Just those two things, really. Just never giving up in my matches, fighting for my team and playing as a unit. Not only for myself, but for other people and having fun with it at the same time. Just enjoying being out there and enjoying the competition and being with my team and the whole college atmosphere of playing for Florida.