By: John Holt
Special to the SEC Digital Network
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.
I recently 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?
Lauren Embree: 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: 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: Has there been one year of the four that you’ve enjoyed most?
LE: All four years have been great. Obviously, my sophomore year winning NCAA’s at Stanford playing against Stanford was the highlight, I think for our team. My best friend Joanna (Mather) was on the team with me, so that was good. And I think this year obviously has been great too because it hasn’t always been easy for our team. We’ve had our ups and downs. We’ve had our struggles throughout the season. So I think this year, and it being my senior year, has been kind of special to me. So I would say those two years out of all of them.
JH: What was the biggest adjustment you faced coming into college?
LE: I would say a lot of it has to do with pressure situations, and playing for your team, and kind of adjusting. College matches are totally different from any individual junior matches you’ll ever play. Playing not only for yourself, but having the pressure to win for your teammates and stuff is definitely something that I’ve learned to adjust to. Aside from tennis, you learn a bunch of things when you’re at school, balancing your time, your schoolwork, your athletic sport that you have to put time into. So kind of just being on your own, and managing time, and stuff like that, is what you really learn and grow when you’re in college that you can’t really experience anywhere else.
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 its 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: And you guys have lost some doubles points this year, which seems pretty rare.
LE: Yeah we’re not used to losing a lot of doubles points, so that’s something we adjusted to. But the girls on the team, they’re great. They have been great since the beginning, and they fight really hard when we lose the doubles point to try to make sure they get their point in singles, and do their jobs, so all the credit to them for toughing it out this season and sticking with it.
JH: 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: Before this season began, did your coaches sit down and talk to you about expecting more from you, from a leadership standpoint, since you’re one of only two seniors on the team?
LE: Definitely. (Head coach) Roland (Thornqvist) has talked to me, and Caroline (Hitimana), and said we’re kind of the leaders on this team. And I think we don’t even have to lead. I mean, all of the girls know what they’re doing, they know what to do and when to do it. So we’re just kind of there if they need help with anything or obviously, if they want to come to us for anything. But we don’t really look at ourselves as the team leaders who tell people what to do. I mean, everyone follows the upperclassmen and does everything right, but we’re kind of just there if anybody needs help.
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.