It took her a few days, but Lauren Embree found her smile again.
The jovial, outgoing and exceedingly accomplished star of the Florida Gators women’s tennis team faced the toughest stretch of her playing career one week ago while being uncharacteristically upset in a pair of singles matches within a three-day span. Her college career, which she thought could end with a third team national title and perhaps even a singles championship, came to screeching halt sooner than she, her family, teammates or coaches could ever have expected.
Entering a 2013 NCAA Tournament semifinal round showdown with Stanford on May 20, Embree had not lost as a singles competitor in dual match play. The No. 1 player in the country was 20-0 on the season, 11-0 against top 25-ranked opponents.
But none of that mattered when she lined up across from No. 13 Nicole Gibbs, who had Embree’s number from the get-go. Gibbs thwarted her 6-0, 6-1, not only earning a huge upset victory over arguably the best player in the country but also putting Florida’s season on the brink in the process.
The rest of the Gators fought hard but ultimately lost, dropping the match 4-3 to the Cardinal and getting knocked out before the finals for the first time since 2009.
Embree was understandably devastated yet had no choice but to regroup quickly as she was also competing in NCAA singles action two days later. She never could have guessed what would happen next.
Matched up against No. 21 Jacqueline Cako from Arizona State, Embree put up a better fight than she did two days earlier but was still defeated 6-3, 6-2 despite having numerous opportunities to make a run in the second set.
After a career that earned her the well-deserved nickname “Ms. Clutch,” her most recent outings left her feeling like she was anything but.
“Obviously those were not good performances,” Embree said in a conversation with OGGOA on Tuesday. “It was heartbreaking, and it’s definitely a feeling that I had my freshman year in the finals [loss]. You don’t want to ever feel like that, but it’s a part of sports and it happens.
“Starting with the [loss in dual match play] and then having to play individuals, kind of regroup and try to get my mind clear, it was obviously not the way I wanted to go out and end my college career.”
Embree consistently competed at such a high level during her time at Florida that her poor play was a curious development. Many were left wondering whether she might have been injured earlier in the tournament.
“I actually got a text message from a random number asking if I was injured. That was not the case. I may have been mentally injured, but I definitely was not [physically] injured,” she said half-jokingly.
“It was a bad couple of days for me. I don’t know if I was thinking about it too much, thinking about how my career is about to end and I can’t lose. I don’t know what happened. Nothing was wrong with me. The girls I played obviously played well. They were tougher than me those days and that’s what happened. Obviously I’m not used to losing that badly, especially twice in three days, back-to-back.”
Having taken time to reflect on her play, Embree remains bothered that she did not do better but finally sees her performances within the scope of the bigger picture. The 2013 ITA National Senior Player of the Year and three-time Southeastern Conference Player of the Year now realizes that her most recent losses are simply a pair of potholes on an otherwise pristine highway highlighted by two national championships and eight total SEC crowns over a historic four-year career.
“One or two matches can’t really put me down after the four years I had as a college player,” she said. “Obviously I didn’t perform that well those days.
“I’ve had a little bit of pressure on me for quite some time to try and win the individual tournament, try to do this and try to do that. I was just trying to go out here and play my best, and obviously I did not play my best and came up a little bit short.
“I’m OK with that, considering the career I’ve had. I wasn’t fine going out in the first round [of individual play], but looking back on it there’s more to life than that one match. It’s part of sports. It happens. I just have to move on.”
Embree wasn’t able to move on immediately after she dropped her singles match to Gibbs. She had another job to do on the court in Champaign, IL that evening. With Florida in a 2-0 hole, Embree had to take off her star player cap and transform into another familiar role: her teammates’ biggest cheerleader.
UF needed all the help it could get to come back from the deficit it had dug. And at one point, it appeared as if No. 116 Caroline Hitimana would be the one counted on to try and save the day for the Gators.
After dropping her first set 1-6, Hitimana fought back against Natalie Dillon, overpowering her to win the second set as decisively as she had lost the first, 6-1. With Embree now rooting on her fellow senior, Hitimana came through in the clutch for Florida, blanking Dillon in the third and final set to reduce UF’s overall deficit to 3-2.
“She was playing kind of farther away from me, but I saw after she had lost the first set, I had no idea what was going on because she’s so good. ‘Carol, let’s go!’ I was shocked because she’s a winner. I knew the match wasn’t close to over. I knew she had a couple more hours left to go,” Embree explained.
“When she won her match, I was so proud of her for not only going out with a bang but helping the team by fighting and keeping us in the match. She’s been a great leader on the team as well. We came in together. We’ve shared the same moments. It was really special for both of us – for her to win, it was special for me. And then after the match, she’s the first person I went to and hugged. We had our moment, whatever, we cried. Looking back on it, it’s been a great four years for both of us.”
Hitimana was not the only teammate Embree had to cheer on. Junior No. 51 Alex Cercone won a hard-fought tiebreak against No. 14 Krista Hardebeck in the first set and looked to be in control of the second set before she lost all of her momentum, coughing up her massive lead and eventually the set in a tiebreak.
Having been in a final match with everything on the line twice before during NCAA dual match play, Embree had nothing but empathy for her teammate. Unlike Embree, who clinched national titles when twice faced with the same situation, Cercone lost her third set and felt she put the nail in the Gators’ coffin.
“During the match, I remember looking over to Sofie [Oyen] and we both literally wanted to throw up we were so nervous. So I said, ‘This must be how you guys felt when I was on the court two years ago. Now I know how it feels.’ I knew what Alex was going through,” Embree said.
“She was trying so hard; it’s not like she gave up by any means. She just came up a little short. She probably got a little nervous, a little tired. [Hardebeck] just started making great plays, hitting winners and shots at the right time. After the match, right when it finished, [Cercone] just dropped to the ground and started crying. I went over to give her a hug.
“Her mom told me the first thing she said was: ‘I let Lauren down.’ By no means is that what happened at all. She didn’t let anyone down. She tried her best. It’s a team effort. Me and Sofie lost our singles matches as well. Like I said, she just happened to be the last one out there. Having that lead, maybe she got a little nervous. I know it was a long match and she was very tired. She was running like crazy.”
Erik Murphy was 140 miles North of his girlfriend while she was experiencing two of the worst days of her career, close enough to want to be there for her yet too far for it to be possible. Murphy was in Chicago, IL preparing to participate in the 2013 NBA Combine, a huge event that would help decide his future.
Following one of Embree’s matches from afar was nothing new for Florida’s leading three-point shooter and neither was having to deal with the disappointment of putting together a pair of lackluster performances in the final two games of a career.
Back in March, Murphy and the Gators were competing in the NCAA Tournament. He started off playing as consistently as he had all season, going 8-for-11 for 18 points and 5-for-7 for 15 points in first- and second-round match-ups with Northwestern State and Minnesota, respectively. Then the wheels fell off.
Though Murphy may have been recovering from the flu, he struggled mightily in the next two games. His 2-for-7 showing against FGCU wound up not mattering much as UF pulled out a 62-50 victory in the Sweet 16 match-up, but his subsequent performance played a big part in the Gators being ousted from the event.
Murphy went 0-for-11 from the field and failed to get to the line against Michigan, finishing without a single point in a game for the first time in over two years.
Embree was in Fayetteville, AR, on March 31 – one set into what would eventually become a 6-2, 6-1 singles victory against a player from Arkansas – when she picked up her phone on a break during her match to check on her boyfriend and his team.
“I remember checking the score and seeing we were down 17 at halftime,” she recalled. “After the game, I looked and hoped maybe Erik had a good game. And then I saw his stats…and I just lost it. It was heartbreaking. I knew what he put into trying to play well for his team and knew he was probably sitting there absolutely crushed.
“I didn’t talk to him right away because we were travelling and stuff. That night I talked to him, I knew he was super upset and super pissed. He’s exactly how I am when I lose matches and when he has bad games. We don’t like to talk to anybody. We don’t like people saying, ‘Congratulations on a great four years,’ because we’re so mad. But I talked to him, I said obviously I was proud of what he accomplished.
“He went from being pretty bad [laughing] his freshman year to contributing his sophomore year to being great his junior year and having a chance to go to the NBA now. Looking back on it, I think he knows that you can’t really judge your career based on one game. Obviously it’s not how you want to go out at all, and you’ll always be disappointed at that, but you kind of have to look at the big picture.”
When Embree wound up emulating Murphy in her final two collegiate games, she got to experience the same hurt first-hand though perhaps less publicly.
“When I lost individuals, he knew exactly what happened and what you go through when you lose those matches,” she said. “I know he has a lot more publicity; people are on him all the time about his performances. I don’t get that as much so I couldn’t imagine what he went through because I was going through the same thing but he was going through it 10 times worse.”
What she did not know was that Murphy was equally as torn up inside when he first learned of her disappointing finish. He remembered how she consoled him two months earlier and was sure to return the favor despite knowing nothing he could say would make her feel any better in the moment.
“It was really rough. Obviously it’s not the way she wanted to go out. But that’s just what happens in sports,” Murphy said. “A similar situation happened to me. I played my two worst games of the year the last two games.
“I just tried to talk to her, be there for her when she needs me, told her she will be alright. I just try to tell her that kind of stuff happens in sports. That’s why you play. Some days it goes your way, some days it doesn’t. Whatever’s done is done so you got to look back at the good moments and make sure the struggles make you better.”
Murphy’s support played a major role in Embree’s recovery from her misfortune.
“He’s always been there for me,” she said. “He’s the best. He’s been great.”
Most athletes brush off the concept of “pressure” and how it can affect one’s performance. While Embree certainly did not indicate that it got to her during the team competition, she did express that the Gators knew they were a target all season long.
Embree said Florida went into the 2010 finals (which it lost) and 2011 finals (which it won) relatively pressure-free but felt the burden mounting in 2012 when the Gators, returning their entire team minus one senior, were the favorites to repeat. She indicated that the pressure rose exponentially this season.
“We had to deal with adversity. We did not have the same team. We were basically one of the best teams and people thought we were going to win it again, a three-peat,” Embree explained. “I think that really put pressure on us because everybody that plays us obviously can play free, can play with nothing to lose. It seems like sometimes we played with everything to lose. I think this year was definitely the most pressure.
“We had a younger team, too, with some freshman who preformed great during NCAAs under pressure. Really proud of them for what they did for us this year. I think definitely this year was the most pressure to try and win again. We’ve dealt with a lot of adversity by losing doubles points, being forced to win four singles matches to win. This year was definitely the most adversity, the most challenges and the most pressure.”
Considering the team’s doubles struggles, Florida did quite well for itself. The dream of a three-peat may not have been realized, but the Gators advanced to the Final Four for the fourth-straight season and came within a game of playing for their third consecutive national title (which would’ve been a first for the team).
“We were obviously disappointed because we wanted to have that chance to three-peat,” Embree said. “Looking back on it, we had a great season. All the adversity we faced, we overcame most of it and got to the Final Four. It was a great accomplishment, but it’s obviously not good enough necessarily for what we think is good because we win championships and put ourselves in that position. We came up a little short that day. We had a great season, looking back on it now.”
Aside from introspection, the experienced words of her boyfriend and the loving embrace of her family, Embree received plenty of support from Florida head coach Roland Thronqvist. The relationship between the two at times more closely resembles a friendship than it does a player-coach connection, which is why Thornqvist knew exactly what to say (and when to say it) to Embree.
“When he talked to us, he congratulated us and said he was nothing but proud of us. He wasn’t mad or disappointed. Obviously, we had our chances,” she recalled.
“After he talked to our team, he personally pulled me aside, gave me a hug, congratulated me. I was obviously a mess. I was crying. I was distraught. He was very supportive. I have a great relationship with him, literally can tell him everything. He’s been there for me for four years. He just kept the positive talks going.
“After my individual match on Wednesday, we didn’t talk about it too much right away because he knows me, especially to not come around when I lose. You don’t want to be around me when I lose. But a couple days after I was able to let it go, we had a talk. He just told me how proud he was of me and what I’ve done or tried to do to help the Gators these past four years. He’s obviously going to miss me, and I’m going to miss him and the rest of the staff. He’s been nothing but very supportive of my tennis and my career and just very proud of me.”
The events of last week seemed like the end of the world to Embree, but she is well aware that she is just entering her prime. Now that Embree realizes her career will not be defined by the way it ended but rather how it unfolded, she can look back and a list of accomplishments and achievements that ranks her among the greatest student-athletes in the history of the Florida athletic program.
Two-time NCAA National Champion (2011-12)
Four-time SEC Regular-Season Champion (2010-13)
Four-time SEC Tournament Champion (2010-13)
2013 ITA National Senior Player of the Year
2012 Riviera/ITA All-American Singles Champion (collegiate Grand Slam title)
Two-time NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player (2011, 2012)
* Clinched championship point both years.
Three-time SEC Player of the Year (2010, 2012, 2013)
* First and only freshman ever to win the award.
2010 ITA National Rookie Player of the Year
When Embree returns from her much-deserved cruise vacation, she will spend at least a month working out at the USTA Training Facility in Boca Raton, FL, before beginning to compete on the USTA Pro Circuit, likely starting out on the west coast in July. She is excited to see what the future holds and plans to continue representing the Gators throughout her professional career.
The unsettling two-match performance now in her rear-view mirror, Embree knows a life experience such as this will surely benefit her in the long run, making an already determined and confident athlete even more emboldened and laser-focused.
“It has definitely made me stronger,” she said, “and hopefully that makes me better.”
As if she needed it.
Photo Credit: Ron Irby/Tampa Bay Times