EDITOR’S NOTE: This feature is included in Gator Country’s June issue and was filed before the Gators repeated at national champs.
By John Holt
These days in collegiate sports, student-athletes are most celebrated for their honors and achievements.
At the same time, many collegiate athletes are also faced with numerous expectations and significant degrees of pressure.
While some athletes struggle to find a steadfast balance between the two, others thrive.
Florida junior women’s tennis standout Lauren Embree has proven over the course of her time in Gainesville that no matter the level of pressure or magnitude of expectations tossed her way, her focus never shifts away from the task at hand.
As crazy as it sounds, the reality of the matter is that all of the high amounts of pressure and expectations Embree has endured, simply have pushed her tennis game to new heights.
Still many wonder, how does someone who never wears her socks up the entire way on her feet and concedes to having an unusual pattern of bouncing a tennis ball eight times before ever tossing it in the air to serve, become such a dominant force in this particular collegiate sport?
Embree’s college coach, Roland Thornqvist, puts it this way.
“She has a mind like a steel trap and is so tough,” he said. “She doesn’t give you an inch and that’s what you need in championship settings. When the pressure is high, her premium goes up.”
RUNS IN THE FAMILY
Tennis is and has always been considered the primary sport in the Embree family household. Lauren, who hails from Marco Island, Fla., engaged in the sport at the age of five. Her father, Keith, played tennis at the University of Tampa, while her brother, also named Keith, was a Florida high school State Champion in 2006 before a stellar career at Florida State.
Growing up, Embree attended public school all the way through the end of her junior year of high school. Practicing tennis and training for two hours each day up to that point, Embree elected to be home-schooled her senior year and finish her coursework online. The adjustment allowed Embree the opportunity to practice tennis for longer hours as well as to travel and participate in more junior tournaments.
“The way I practiced with my dad growing up, I knew that if I was as good as I was just playing two hours every day, imagine how good I could be if I actually home-schooled like a lot of kids did and played tennis literally all day,” Embree said reflecting back to the decision. “That’s kind of when it hit me that I could potentially be as good as I want to be.”
SUCCESS AT THE JUNIOR LEVEL
As a junior player, Embree competed in several high profile tournaments including the 2006 U.S. Open Junior Championships and 2009 Australian Open Junior Championships, where she advanced to the round of 16.
Shortly after her senior year of high school came to an end, she qualified as a wild card for the 2009 French Open, which wound up being her first match in the main draw of a Grand Slam event.
In the first round of the tournament, she met No. 11 seed Nadia Petrova of Russia, who in 2006 reached as high as No. 3 in the world. Petrova would defeat Embree 6-1, 6-2, but the experience Roland Garros provided her was instrumental.
Following her loss to Petrova, the decision to either remain an amateur or join a collegiate program became much more difficult. In the end, however Embree kept true to her commitment on attending college.
THE PERFECT FIT
By the time it came down to make a decision on where to attend college, Embree said that she looked for four specific things. She wanted to attend a school where she felt comfortable and welcomed by all members of the team. She wanted to enroll in a school that had a superb coaching staff. She wanted to go somewhere that had first-class facilities. And possibly more than anything, she wanted to find a school that offered her the best chance to compete for a national championship.
In the end, Florida was the perfect fit, beating out her two other finalists North Carolina and Georgia.
“She did very well in junior tournaments,” senior teammate Joanna Mather said. “She won some big junior titles before coming to college, and we were just hoping that she would decide to come to college before turning pro.”
Embree, who lists Maria Sharapova and Kim Clijsters as her two favorite players currently on the women’s professional tour, was labeled as the nation’s top recruit coming out of high school in 2009. Along with Allie Will, the No. 3 ranked player in the class, and Waterloo, Belgium native Caroline Hitimana, the trio formed what collegerecruiting.net tabbed that year as the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class.
“I saw everything you want in a player,” Thornqvist said of recruiting Embree. “She’s a team player. She’s a world-class athlete.”
Plenty was expected of Embree upon her arrival in Gainesville in the fall of 2009, especially due to being ranked the nation’s top recruit coming out of high school. Playing No. 1 singles as a freshman for the Gators, she finished 20-3 in dual matches and became the first freshman ever to win Southeastern Conference Player of the Year.
Meanwhile, as a team Florida finished the 2010 season as the NCAA runner-up.
“I had a great freshman year,” Embree said. “I was playing well, and I still feel like I’m playing well. I didn’t even know that I was the first freshman to win the award until someone had told me. It’s really special and I’m really grateful to have that award.”
Last week the league announced that Embree was voted the 2012 SEC Player of the Year, now marking the second time in her career that she has won the award. It also marks only the second time ever a Florida Gator has been presented with the award more than once in a career (the first being Jill Craybas, who won the award in 1995 and 1996).
Embree’s sophomore year will forever be remembered by her gutsy, comeback win over Stanford’s Mallory Burdette, which clinched the Gators 2011 NCAA Championship and marked the program’s fifth NCAA title in school history.
With the match tied at one set apiece, Embree began the final set down 4-0 and on the verge of losing to Stanford for the second consecutive year in the NCAA finals.
Instead of panicking, Embree was calm.
“That’s the thrill of tennis and why you play, for moments like that,” Embree said looking back on her match that continues to be discussed across the college tennis world. “I like being in those situations. Especially if you’ve been in those situations before, you kind of have the experience and know what to expect, so that helps a little bit. I enjoy the pressure.”
Competing on the biggest stage of collegiate tennis with 2,000 fans rooting against her and Stanford attempting to keep its 184 consecutive home-match win streak intact, Embree rallied and did the unthinkable. Increasing her focus, Embree never lost belief on being able to overcome the adversity presented directly in front of her. She would send the set to a tiebreaker and after a few more intense moments of courageous fighting, a dream transformed into a reality: Embree had managed to pick up the most storied win of her tennis career and for the rest of her life could call herself a national champion.
“I’m not really sure my life has changed, but winning the (2011) national championship as a team is definitely the best experience of our lives,” Embree said. “Since then, we’ve obviously had something on our backs because we want to repeat. It was a great experience but that’s kind of in the past, and we’re a whole new team now.”
OFF THE COURT
Aside from tennis, Embree, a sports management major, enjoys shopping, working out, spending time with her teammates and boyfriend, Gator basketball player Erik Murphy.
An avid Taylor Swift and Adele fan, Embree’s Florida teammates and friends embrace her as “Em.”
From a movie standpoint, comedy and horror films are her favorite genres. Although she notes that she can’t ever watch a scary movie alone.
“Lauren’s one of the greatest people I’ve met,” Mather said. “We’re roommates. We’re best friends, so we spend a lot of time together and I never get sick of her. She definitely leads this team and everyone respects her and looks up to her, so it’s just nice to be around her.”
THRICE AS NICE
In Oxford, Miss., the top-seeded Gators defeated third-seeded Georgia 4-1 to capture their third consecutive SEC Tournament title. Individually, Embree put together a brilliant weekend. She and her doubles partner, Mather, went 3-0, while in singles she knocked off two top-10 ranked players in back-to-back matches.
As Florida met host Ole Miss in the tournament semifinals, Embree faced No. 9 Kristi Boxx. Down 2-0 in the opening set, it appeared Boxx had the early momentum to possibly pick up her first career win against Florida’s star standout. Then all of a sudden, before anyone knew it, Embree had reeled off 12 straight games and won the match 6-2, 6-0.
The following day in the tournament final, Embree earned an even more impressive win when she defeated Georgia’s Chelsey Gullickson in three sets. Gullickson won the 2010 NCAA Singles championship and at the time of the match was ranked No. 7 in the ITA singles rankings.
After splitting the first two sets, Gullickson held a 5-4 lead in the third and served for the match before Embree broke her at love, en route to winning the next three games and the match 3-6, 6-4, 7-5.
“She’s a great player and fights really hard,” Gullickson said after the match. “We’ve played a few times before. She’s in great shape and gets everything back. I knew going out there it was going to be a tough match, but she played great.”
Just a few days after the win, Embree sought to compare the Gators’ most recent SEC Tournament title with the team’s previous two. “This one is just as exciting, especially because it was really close. Every court had a tough match where we had to battle and had to fight and stay together as a team. I think us doing all those things really made it special.”
Alexa Guarachi, a junior on Alabama’s tennis team from Destin, Fla., first met Embree when both were the age of 12. As teenagers, she and Embree traveled across the state together to compete in junior tournaments. Despite being competitive rivals today, Guarachi classifies Embree as one of her closest tennis friends.
Guarachi, a two-time All-SEC first team selection, remarked that over the course of their nine-year friendship, she has faced Embree 14 times yet never once been able to beat her.
“I remember the first time I played her it was at a tournament in Tampa and I was up 5-1 in the first set, and we ended up going to a tiebreaker,” Guarachi recalled. “I was up 6-4 in the tiebreaker and ended up losing 7-6. Then in the second set, I was up 5-2 and then I lost 7-5. Most of the time I play her it’s close or I’m pretty much up the whole time and she finds a way to get back.
“Even when I played her this year, I was up 5-1 in the first set and I ended up losing the set 7-5.”
Guarachi believes that what makes her longtime friend such a challenging opponent is the defense she’s able to play on the court as well as a strong mental approach.
“She’s never going to give up,” Guarachi said. “She will fight every point. Even if you think you hit a winner, she’s going to get it back. She finds a way to get the ball back no matter what.
“That’s how she beats people. She will just make them see one more ball, one more ball. You will literally think you hit a winner, and she’ll find a way to get it back.”
Ole Miss head coach Mark Beyers echoed Guarachi’s comments.
“She’s very tenacious, very quick around the court. She never beats herself, very mentally tough. She has a great backhand and doesn’t give you any free points.”
Embree herself admits she’s not a powerful player and realizes she isn’t going to blow anybody off the court playing that type of style.
“I can’t go hit winners, so I rely on my mental ability and my speed and my court quickness to win my matches,” she said. “I’ve been working to become more offensive, so I won’t have to run as much. But when it comes down to when I need to win matches that’s always good to have. I think my fitness helps a lot too.”
In the third set of Embree’s win over Gullickson during the SEC Tournament Championship final, fitness perhaps was the biggest difference in the match’s outcome as she was able to physically wear down the Georgia All-American.
“She’s pretty much the ideal player you want on your team,” Guarachi said. “You know her point is going to be safe, and she’s going to give everything she has out there for her team.”
LEAVING HER MARK
Embree set personal goals for herself before coming to Gainesville, but acknowledges that even she has surprised herself with some of what she’s been able to accomplish during her three years at Florida.
But for Thornqvist, it’s not the awards, accolades or records that Embree’s produced over the course of her career that he finds surprising.
“What has surprised me a little bit is her appetite for the game,” he said. “In all my 18 years of coaching, she has the greatest appetite for the game and practice that I’ve ever seen. It’s like a sponge.”
That competitive spirit and edge has ignited Embree to many other impressive records besides just being recognized as a two-time All-American and two-time SEC Player of the Year. Today she holds a 45-match dual match singles winning streak, a career singles record of 85-12, a 29-0 undefeated record in SEC regular season singles matches and is ranked No. 9 in this week’s ITA singles ranking.
“It definitely hasn’t been all positives,” Embree said of her career and time at Florida. “I’ve had my ups and downs. They don’t all show, but at practice and people who know me they’ve seen my share of them. But hopefully I can just keep going and accomplish even more.”
BACK TO BACK?
(EDITOR’S NOTE: The Gators ended up repeating as national champs, but with this section also being in the June magazine, we won’t change it here.) With the NCAA Tournament looming ahead, Embree and her Florida teammates are prepared to defend their 2011 NCAA crown.
At this time, the Gators are ranked No. 2 in the nation and hold a 21-1 overall record, with their lone loss coming against Stanford on February 12.
They finished the SEC regular season 11-0, won yet another SEC Tournament championship and most certainly look to be one of the favorites to win it all once again.
“I feel like our team is pretty humble and our coach makes sure we are pretty humble,” Embree said. “We’re really fortunate to have won that national championship last year. It was not easy. So with all the success our team has had, we’re always going for more and we always want to be the best we can be.”
Embree said in order for her team to defend their NCAA crown, they must do three things well: stay united, never lose their focus and be as fit of a team as they possibly can be.
“Lauren will lead by example,” Thornqvist said. “She doesn’t have to say much. Just preparing the way she prepares, it trickles down to everyone else.”
When her collegiate tennis career comes to an end one year from now, Embree aspires to be in the midst of a transition phase.
Many surrounding her are confident she has all the tools necessary to be a successful professional at the next level.
“I think she’s capable of anything,” Guarachi said. “She’s obviously dominated the college level and I could definitely see her going onto the pro circuit and doing well too.”
Thornqvist added, “Without a doubt in my mind she can make a living. She will come to play everyday. She’ll come to practice everyday. Physically she can get better.
“Her serve can get better. She can hit the ball harder, eventually. But there’s no doubt in my mind that she has the ability to making a living with the sport.”
It’ll be interesting to see what happens when that time comes, but right now all “Em” can control is where she is today.
“I honestly just go out there and try to win for my team,” Embree said. “I think that really helps, knowing that you’re not only winning for yourself, but for other people and that’s kind of what keeps me going. It keeps me driven to win.”