Embree comes home to assist Gators

University of Florida's Lauren Embree plays against South Carolina State in the 2010 NCAA Women's Tennis Championships first round at Linder Stadium at Ring Tennis Complex at UF Friday, May 14, 2010, in Gainesville. [Gainesville Sun File]

As a young woman playing tennis and attending classes at the University of Florida, Lauren Embree didn’t give much thought to whether she’d end up back at UF after her student-athlete career ended.

Yet after a four-year professional career on the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tour and a two-year stint as an assistant coach at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., Embree, 29, got a call that brought her time as a Gator full circle.

And what were the Gators getting in the return of Embree? Only the most decorated player in the program’s history.

A five-time NCAA All-American whose individual wins clinched 2011 and 2012 national championships for Florida. Those victories also helped earn her the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award in both those endeavors.

She compiled a 117-16 career singles record, including a 38-0 mark in SEC play during her four years.

“Honestly, I didn’t,” said Embree when asked if she ever thought about coaching for the Gators while a player. “I loved every single second at UF and it was good to me … but I don’t think at 20 or 21, I looked that far into the future.”

Certainly for head coach Roland Thornqvist, the familiarity with Embree as a player and person made it an easy call to make.

“Obviously there is a correlation between being a player and a coach,” Thornqvist said. “But not always. What would facilitate (that transition) is that she is a great communicator. She can relate to (the players) better.”

After playing professionally for four years on the ITF, injuries caught up to her and made her think about coaching. With her home base then in Los Angeles, Thornqvist helped her get set up with Pepperdine, just up the Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. The picturesque campus sits in hills overlooking the ocean – not a bad first coaching gig.

“Pepperdine just worked out great, had a good run there,” Embree said. “And then this happened.”

The “this” in question was a call to come home. Embree graduated from Ely High School and her hometown is Marco Island, both in Florida. Plus the allure of coming back to the site of some of her greatest successes and having a chance to help a new crop of Gators was just too much to pass up.

Thornqvist knew it wasn’t an opportunity he could pass up either, having an assistant coach position open and knowing someone who could ably fill it.

“Obviously she was going to be the first person called on anyone’s list, let alone ours,” he said. “You’ve got to be quick to snag her. She is a Gator through and through.”

In an abbreviated 2020 campaign, Florida had a 5-4 record before the season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. While her learning experience was abbreviated somewhat, Embree definitely had an impact on the Gators – and vice versa.

“You’re dealing with completely different personalities … trying to understand what works for them,” Embree said. “My favorite part is developing that relationship and developing that trust.”

Thornqvist has also noticed other areas his former player has made within the program.

“She put her stamp onto everything we did,” he said. “Certainly in recruiting, that was an area we needed help. She’s excellent when it comes to fitness and nutrition.

“Tactically, she played the game a certain way,” Thornqvist added. “We try to teach her her style of play to the players.”

When the volley came from UF, Embree wasn’t going to miss. Even though she iterated that she loved her time in California, there was only one place that could replicate the happiest moments of her life.

“The time I had here was obviously the best time of my life,” she said. “It’s good memories, every time I drive into work, I try to remind myself that this is such a great place and it’s given so much to me.”