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Thursday May 9, 2013The Ice Princess: Lauren Embree's Time at UF has Changed the College Tennis Landscape

Chris Harry
By Chris Harry
GatorZone.com Senior Writer

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Keith Embree has watched his daughter crush countless opponents on the tennis court over the years. Makes sense. Lauren Embree was one of the most decorated juniors of her era and now is the No. 1-ranked singles player in the NCAA.

Hey, who doesn’t like a good wipeout in favor of their kid, right?

Yet for the elder Embree, there are occasions when he senses things might be getting a little too cozy on Lauren’s side of the court. It’s not like he’s pulling for the competition -- not even close -- but there’s an odd sense of relief when her opponent forces a third a decisive set.

He knows what’s coming.

As in, match on.

“I’ve seen it too many times,” father said. “When a it’s a set apiece, it’s almost like, ‘All right, let’s go. We’re ready.’ That’s really when I feel the most confident.”

Apparently, it’s when Lauren feels more confident. And competitive.

“That’s when she takes it to another gear,” Florida coach Roland Thornqvist said. “Not just her game, but her mental makeup, which is actually better when more is at stake. I’ve never seen anyone with the ability to concentrate more and make even better decisions in highly tense moments than Lauren Embree.”

Whether such moments will unfold this weekend is debatable, but UF fans take note. The Gators (22-2), two-time defending national champs, will host the first two rounds of the 2013 NCAA Championships meaning Friday’s first-round match against Marist (11-7) and a likely second-rounder against either Georgia Tech (14-9) or Yale (17-3) will mark the final home appearance of one of greatest athletes ever to wear a Florida uniform.

And beyond.

As Thornqvist put it, “I think she’s the greatest four-year player in the history of college tennis.”

Embree, the senior from Marco Island, will take a career record of 114-14 into the weekend. Wrapped in those numbers is a perfect 38-0 mark in Southeastern Conference singles play and an 18-3 record in NCAA Championships play, including the title-clinching match points in each of the last two seasons.

Guiding her teammates to a third straight NCAA crown would place Embree, the only three-time SEC Player of the Year in league history, in an even more elite stratosphere; if that’s even possible.

As her UF clock ticks away, Embree is taking nothing for granted.

“It’s just now starting to hit me that it could all be over at any moment,” she said.  “I want to go out and play my best these last matches. I want to go out with this team on top.”

Only one other UF program -- men’s indoor track (2010-12) -- has won three straight NCAA Championships. Women’s tennis not only has a chance to become the second, but also add a seventh national title to the trophy case at the Ring Complex.

For Embree, the thrill of the chase drives her.

A young Lauren EmbreeAlways has.

Embree’s father played tennis at the University of Tampa in the early 1970s and had both his children, young Keith and Lauren, armed with rackets early. Like the age of 5.

“By the time she was 8 or so, it got more serious,” he said.

Dad worked at a bank. After dinner, he and the kids would head to the YMCA or public courts and hit for about 90 minutes. Every night. When she got older, Lauren practiced or played on her own after school and still wanted the after-dinner workouts.

Inner-family matches, too.

“My brother and I couldn’t play an hour without fighting or getting kicked off some courts somewhere,” she said. “We both wanted to win so bad.”

Not just in tennis.

Lauren EmbreeLauren played basketball in middle school on a very bad team. Her dad recalled one game when Lauren got so frustrated with her teammates that she just took the ball and literally took over the game, scoring, stealing and defending on sheer athleticism and that ferocious will to win.

The latter was just part of Embree’s DNA makeup. Those competitive juices, though, did not manifest themselves from emotional outbursts. Quite the opposite.

“We used to call her the ‘Ice Princess,’ when she’d get that steely eyed look and just start digging in,” her father recalled. “She was never one to hit and giggle. Fun before the match? Fine. Fun after the match? Fine. In between? No. All business.”

Eventually that fiery demeanor was channeled exclusively into junior tennis. Embree joined forces with Miami-based coach Julie Steven, a former junior prodigy herself. She took Embree’s game to a different level.

“She trained so hard she’d have sweat dripping down her racket,” Steven said. “She’d hit the ball and her sweat would hit me in the face. That’s how hard she worked.”

Embree ascended to No. 1 nationally in all junior divisions. The very first tournament she entered with Steven as her coach was the Under-16 Super Nationals in San Diego.

She won.

And she was just 14 at the time.

“The way she competes, it’s what any coach would wish for in any of their students,” Steven said. “But it’s not something you can teach. It’s just there. It’s who she is.”

Lauren Embree congradulates Nadia PetrovaAt 18, before graduating from Naples Lely High, Embree earned a wild-card entry into the French Open, where she faced 11th-seeded Nadia Petrova, who three years earlier was ranked No. 3 in the world. Petrova won 6-1, 6-2, but Embree claimed a personal in-match battle of her own.

“I was getting destroyed, but I wasn’t going to get beat in less than an hour, no way,” she said. “That was my goal. Be out there for an hour.”

Result: 1 hour, 5 minutes.

[Note: Petrova was beaten the next round in three sets ... by Maria Sharapova]

Embree could have opted for the professional track, but even during her dominating days as a junior she knew college tennis was something to which she aspired. The lure of going to big school -- she visited North Carolina; considered Georgia, too -- and experiencing the bond of team tennis appealed to her.

So did Florida.

When Embree signed with the Gators, the program was six years removed from its last national championship; six years removed from reaching the NCAA final, in fact. Her arrival would change the landscape of women’s college tennis, but first it changed the daily mindset of the Gators.

“We all knew she was good. We knew she’d played in the French Open,” recalled former UF standout and team captain Joanna Mather. “Sometimes when a player decides to come to college [rather than turn pro], they don’t work as hard. Maybe they coast a little bit and just try to maintain their skills. Lauren didn’t do that. I’d never seen anyone work as hard as she did.”

Embree’s drive spilled over to her teammates. It challenged her coach. Once Thornqvist learned to read his star pupil, the Gators took off.

“It’s so interesting coaching her,” Thornqvist said. “I love it.”

Over the course of her career, Embree has often waved off in-match visits from Thornqvist with a simple, “I’m fine. Let’s go.” Other times -- in the heat of a bloodbath with everything on the line -- her gut has told it’s time to listen and take instruction that she’s locked in on and implemented it with incredible results.

Rewind to 2011.

The year before, Embree’s freshman season, the Gators reached the NCAA finals, only to lose a 4-3 heartbreaker to powerhouse Stanford. The two teams met again in the following year, with Embree, then a sophomore, the last UF player on the court. The match was locked 3-3, but Embree was down 4-0 in the third and decisive set at No. 2 singles against Mallory Burdette.

Two words: Steely eyed.

Two more words: Ice Princess.

“We got it to [4-1] game and saw that Mallory was really fatigued and just couldn’t hit her backhand down the line anymore,” Thornqvist said. “So we changed our entire approach to the match. Lauren looked and listened to everything I said, then went out, forced her to that backhand and absolutely blew [Burdette] away.”

Embree, down big against one of the nation’s best players, rallied to win the third set in a thrilling tiebreaker - against the same player who won the third-setter against Florida to clinch the 2010 national title - that not only gave the Gators their fifth national championship, but broke Stanford’s NCAA-record 184 consecutive home-match win streak and its 47-match overall win streak.

“I don’t think anyone else could have done that,” junior teammate Alexandra Cercone said. “I can’t imagine being in that situation. I can’t imagine even wanting to be in that situation.”

Maybe not intentionally.

But sub-conscientiously?

“I don’t know why it happens, I just know that I play better when I’m down,” Embree said. “Maybe I focus better, play harder and dig deeper when I’m down. I’ve always had that problem.”

Yeah, some problem.

Last year, the Gators waxed the courts in Athens, Ga., with UCLA in in the NCAA finals, winning 4-0 to capture a second straight national title for the first time. Her flair for drama wasn’t needed that day. Embree just whipped McCall Jones 6-4, 6-0, with her final point clinching the back-to-back championship and setting off an emotional celebration.

Now the goal is a third such celebration.

“These four years have been the best time of my life,” Embree said. “I love this game. I love this team. I love this school. I love seeing how happy we can all be.”

She wants to feel that love one more time. After that, Embree can walk off into the tennis sunset -- come what may with a pro career -- as one of the all-time greatest and proudest of Gators.

After the last four years, Thornqvist was asked if he’s even considered life after Lauren.

He smiled and put things in a context all Gators understand.

“Like trying to replace Tebow.”

Match on.

 

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