GAINESVILLE — The first time Lauren Embree walked into the University of Florida tennis complex, coach Roland Thornqvist said he immediately sensed something different.
"From the first day she arrived here, you could tell there was something special about her," Thornqvist said. "And it just elevates everyone around her, including me."
Embree came with lofty junior tennis credentials, and she had an aura that led Thornqvist to believe she would do great things at Florida. He calls it "the Tiger Woods effect," elevating opponents and teammates. Four years later, Embree has proven that hunch to be correct.
The senior from Marco Island closed out her SEC singles career with a 38-0 record. She has been named SEC player of the year three times in four years, the first three-time winner in the 21 years of the award.
Embree also is a three-time singles All-American and was voted most outstanding player in the past two NCAA championships. The No. 1-ranked singles player in the nation this year, she leads the two-time defending national champion Gators into Friday's NCAA tournament round of 16 with 17 doubles victories in tournament dual matches, the most in UF history. She is 116-14 in career singles.
"It's been amazing, and I've really overexceeded all my expectations in college," Embree said. "I just wanted to win a championship, wanted to win the SEC. And we've done that. So everything else is just kind of like a bonus to me. It's so much fun."
Embree began playing tennis with her father and older brother when she was about 5. Her father is a former University of Tampa tennis player. Her brother played at Florida State.
Embree was the No. 2 overall prospect when she signed out of Lely High in Naples, and many teammates knew exactly what UF was getting.
"I always knew she was a top-caliber player just because I had seen her play in the same tournaments that I was playing," said Florida junior Alex Cercone, of Seminole. "When you get to see it firsthand, it really shows how tough of a competitor she is and how hard she works."
At 5 feet 6, Embree doesn't possess an overpowering backhand or a power serve, and she isn't going to blow an opponent off the court.
"I think a lot of it is just fighting for every point," Embree said, "and just scrapping and grinding, all the little things that go with tennis — wearing people down and just fighting, just continuing to fight even when you know everything's not going right."
It's her highly competitive nature that makes her dominant, teammates said.
"She has an extremely good sense of anticipation, which I've never seen from anybody," junior Olivia Janowicz said. "She fights and runs like crazy. In the big moments, she just knows that she cannot miss."
Embree has dominated the sport more than any other Gators player. Thornqvist has called her the greatest four-year player in the history of college tennis.
She sealed her place in Gator lore as a sophomore when she rallied from a 4-0 third-set deficit to defeat Stanford's Mallory Burdette for the dual-match-clinching win in the NCAA team final. That year, she missed eight months after wrist surgery.
"That just tells you how tough this player really is," Thornqvist said.
Embree resists the talk of greatness, shies away from the accolades. She will tell you she works extremely hard and is proud of her accomplishments. And she'll tell you she couldn't have done it without help.
"It's been unbelievable, the career I've had," Embree said. "The friendships I've made here, the people that I've gotten to meet, my coaches. … These seven girls on this team are my best friends. I'm just so blessed."