NAPLES — Lauren Embree had a celebrated freshman season last year for the University of Florida women’s tennis team.
Injury has delayed a repeat performance for the Lely High School graduate.
The sophomore was named the Southeastern Conference Player of the Year in 2010, when she compiled a 20-3 dual record at the No. 1 singles spot and a 24-3 dual record in doubles. Embree was the first freshman in conference history to earn Player of the Year.
Embree also was the Intercollegiate Tennis Association (ITA) National Rookie Player of the Year and an ITA All-American in singles. She was named to the NCAA all-tournament team at No. 1 singles and No. 2 doubles.
“To get all those awards, I’m proud of myself for it,” said Embree, who finished the year ranked eighth by the ITA in singles among Division I players.
Florida head tennis coach Roland Thornqvist said Embree entered the program with obvious strengths that have allowed her to overwhelm opponents. All but one of her dual match victories last year were straight sets.
“She uses her speed to play a little farther behind the baseline,” Thornqvist said. “She’s tremendously competitive. If it’s 5-all in a set or if the match goes to three sets, the higher the stakes, the greater the value.”
Soon after last season ended, though, Embree began experiencing wrist pain she attributed to years of playing. She had surgery in June to repair a ruptured tendon, and in October to repair another tendon condition she said she couldn’t even pronounce. Embree did not compete in singles matches during the fall season and was 0-2 in doubles play.
“It was just my wrist,” said Embree, the team’s Most Improved Player a year ago. “That really didn’t set me back at all. The doctors say it’s pretty much fixed.”
The inability to compete challenged her. “I didn’t want to still be hurt,” she said. “We have such a great team. I wanted to be part of it.”
Now she’s back playing singles matches, gradually gaining strength from an eight-month layoff. She was able to run, serve, volley and hit forehands but was not able to hit the two-handed backhand.
Thornqvist said last week that Embree is about 85 percent healthy. “It’s going to take some time to get fully back,” he said, noting that she needs 12 matches to get to where she needs to be. “She’s the hardest worker on the team.”
She is managing. “I can play,” said Embree, ranked 36th in singles. “It (the wrist) hurts a little. I ice it every day after I do anything.”
She said her return to action came with some hesitation. “In the beginning, I was just kind of scared to hit it,” she said.
Embree needs to regain confidence, the coach said. “When she was healthy, she knew she could play,” he said. “When she returned to match play in January, I think her mind wanted her to play at the same level as she left off.”
In dual play, Embree has an 7-0 record at No. 2 singles and a 1-0 mark at No. 1. The No. 2-ranked Gators lost to top-ranked Stanford in Monday’s final of the ITA National Women’s Team Indoor Championship in Charlottesville, Va. She beat her 22nd-ranked opponent at No. 2 singles in straight sets. She and Joanna Mather gave Florida its only doubles win, at No. 2.
“I’m happy with my play,” she said. “I feel like I’m striking the ball well. I just need more match play.”