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Saturday, April 13, 2024

Gators women’s tennis legend returns home to help program regain former glory

Lauren Embree makes successful leap into coaching

<p>UF assistant coach Lauren Embree talks to Bente Spee and Alicia Dudeney during the Gators&#x27; match against the Ospreys on Sunday, January 23, 2022 at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Anna Carrington</p>

UF assistant coach Lauren Embree talks to Bente Spee and Alicia Dudeney during the Gators' match against the Ospreys on Sunday, January 23, 2022 at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex in Gainesville, FL / UAA Communications photo by Anna Carrington

During Lauren Embree’s time as an assistant coach at Pepperdine University, she helped pave the way to a spot in the quarterfinal of the 2018 NCAA tournament for the Waves; however, it was her passion and support off the court that gained the respect of her peers.  

When Ashley Lahey, who played at Pepperdine from 2016 to 2020, thinks of her fondest memory of working with Embree, she said she hears laughter. 

“We would always joke around in the car, and I would always make her laugh, and she would always make me laugh,” Lahey said. “We would go out to dinners a lot; overall it was just a really great time.”

In June 2019, Florida head coach Roland Thornqvist recruited the former Gator All-American to come home as an assistant coach. 

During her playing career at UF, Embree amassed five All-American titles and earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Year honors three times. She also played an integral role in the Gators winning back-to-back national titles in 2011 and 2012.

“Winning the back-to-back national championships with the same team was incredible,” Embree said. “They’re all my best friends. It was a huge deal to me to play for something bigger than myself.”

After her decorated college career, Embree competed in the International Tennis Federation Pro Circuit from 2014 to 2017. As a professional, her 90 career singles wins and 60 doubles wins propelled her to two singles titles and four doubles titles.

Embree returned to Gainesville following her two-year stint as an assistant coach at Pepperdine University. At Pepperdine, she worked under head coach Per Nilsson, who has coached the Waves for nine years. 

While her resume continues to develop, Embree’s love for tennis is apparent to all those she interacts with, Nilsson said. Embree’s professionalism was something that separated her from the rest at Pepperdine, he said.

“She doesn’t go halfway when she decides to do something,” Nilsson said. “Whether it's fitness, dieting, training or whatever it is, she's all in.”

Nilsson found her dedication remarkable and attributed much of her success to it, he said. 

During Pepperdine's quarterfinal run, where it would fall to the eventual champions Stanford, Embree’s demeanor made the odds seem surmountable, Nilsson said. 

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“She calmed everyone down and helped us take care of business,” Nilsson said. “She has a fire in her eyes that scares a lot of people, but on the outside she's calm as can be, and that helped our team for sure.”

Embree looks back on her seasons at Pepperdine fondly, she said. However, she’s now excited to try and replicate the success at her alma mater. 

“It was really hard to leave where I was,” Embree said. “[But] I was ready for a new set in my life.”

Back in Gainesville, she hopes to coach up to the winning standard she helped establish as a player. Embree remembers the positive influence she received from coaches and academic staff, she said.

“That just really propels my drive to want to give back now as a coach,” Embree said. “I just want to make sure all of the girls I coach have that same experience [that I had].”

Thornqvist has helped Embree beyond her collegiate career and has stayed a mentor throughout her life, she said. The nature of their relationship is one of trust and respect, Embree said, which translates to success on the court.

“It’s just great that I have that relationship that we’ve had for 10 to 12 years,” Embree said. “It’s very easy to go talk to him about things or come up with new ideas…We’re a team, and it's always been that way, and I know that he’ll be in my life that way forever.”  

Thornqvist alone was not enough to draw Embree back to Gainesville, she said. Embree accredited the sense of community at UF as her biggest reason for returning. 

“Everybody is here to support you,” she said. “Now looking back, I try to remind the girls to never take what they’re doing for granted.”

The sky's the limit for Florida’s current women’s tennis roster, and she sees qualities of herself spread throughout the Gators’ lineup, she said.

Senior Carly Briggs has Embree’s competitive spirit, Embree said. Freshman Rachel Gailis carries her drive to get better, and senior Emma Shelton has her charismatic personality, Embree added. 

“There’s things in everybody that I value so much,” Embree said. “I love them.”

She has no ceiling as a coach, Lahey said. Obviously Embree can win NCAA championships, but beyond that, the relationships she develops with her players will be her greatest accomplishment as a coach, Lahey said.

The Gators, with Embree coaching, will return to action in January at the Freeman Memorial championship in Las Vegas, Nevada.  

Contact Zachary Curtin at Follow him on Twitter @zachary_curtin.

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Zachary Curtin

Zach is a freshman sports journalism major and a sports reporter for the Alligator. When he is not covering UF sports he is often being disappointed by Philadelphia sports teams.

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