Keith and Nancy Embree
Sally Milano | October 10, 2019
The latest parents in our "Positive Parents" series are Keith and Nancy Embree, who are mom and dad to former college stars Lauren and Keith (pictured above).
Lauren reached a career-high junior ranking of No. 6 in the world in 2009, was the No. 1 college player in the country and a five-time All-American for the University of Florida in 2009-13, and led the Gators to two NCAA team titles (2011, 2012). Lauren, who earned a bachelor’s degree in sports management, went on to play pro tennis from 2014-17, reaching a career-high WTA ranking of No. 232 in July 2015, before going back to college tennis as an assistant coach at Pepperdine from 2017-19 and then returning to Florida in June to serve as an assistant coach for the women's tennis team.
Keith, who now works in finance at Raymond James Financial in St.
Petersburg, Fla., played one year of college tennis at the University of South Florida before transferring to Florida State and competing for the Seminoles for three years.
Parents Keith and Nancy recently spoke to USTA.com about their own backgrounds in tennis, how they introduced their kids to the sport, their philosophy on balancing tennis with school and other important things in life, and much more.
USTA.com: Talk about your involvement in tennis. Do you both play? How did you get started in tennis yourselves?
Keith Embree: I grew up doing the whole junior thing in Florida. I grew up in St. Pete and had a huge group of us who played, and we were all reasonably successful juniors in the state tournaments and so forth. And I ended up playing at the University of Tampa for a couple years. So when the kids were born, the acorn doesn’t fall too far from the tree, so that’s what I taught them to do. Lauren probably started out at maybe 4 or 5 years old, and my son, probably around 7 or 8, and they both took to it. And that’s how we all got started.
Nancy Embree: I grew up in New Jersey, and there was no tennis when I grew up, but I was a basketball player, field hockey player, went to Springfield College and played basketball and field hockey there. And then when I moved to Florida in ‘85 and met Keith, he started me with tennis, and I played it very sporadically in college because I had to, because I was a P.E. major, and I just loved it and played every weekend with him. And then when the kids were old enough to play, Keith took them under his wing, and I kind of stepped aside a bit. But now that we’re retired, I play tennis every day in Gainesville, so I play a lot.
USTA.com: How did you introduce tennis to the kids? Did you basically just hand them a racquet, and it all started from there?
Keith Embree: I cut off a racquet for Lauren—a racquetball racquet—and made it shorter, and gave Keith a tennis racquet and went out there and started to toss some balls. And when Nancy and I hit, they wanted a turn. And that’s how they got started.
USTA.com: Did they play other sports besides tennis when they were kids, or did they focus strictly on tennis?
Keith Embree: Yes, they played other sports. My son played mostly baseball and basketball, and then Lauren played some softball and some basketball.
Nancy Embree: She also did cross country.
USTA.com: So when did your kids decide to go just with tennis?
Nancy Embree: In middle school, Lauren played a little basketball, but then after middle school, it was just all tennis. She didn’t do any other sport in high school but tennis. And then my son was 12, and he kind of stopped everything else and just concentrated on tennis, and they just played every day. My husband took them to the courts every night after school for an hour and a half. That’s what they did.
USTA.com: Did you coach them yourselves, or did you find outside coaches to work with them? How did that work?
Keith Embree: It was pretty much mostly dad. They did go to a clinic a few days a week up in Naples. They were involved in that, and typically when they got back from that, we ate dinner and went out and hit for whatever it was… 60 minutes or something like that. And, obviously, the clinic there and hitting with me, they got pretty good in a short amount of time.
USTA.com: What would you say your approach was with Lauren and Keith, as far as helping them balance their tennis with other important things in life—school, time with friends, things like that?
Keith Embree: We tried to keep it pretty balanced, in terms of allowing them sleepovers—you know, all the regular stuff, the school. We didn’t do any academies throughout their whole careers, either one of them. So we tried to keep that balance. I think we tried to keep it hard work, but on the other hand, I didn’t beat drills into them and try to do the same things all the time. We tried to keep a variety of drills and a variety of things to do and games and so forth, to keep it fun, and we entered them in little tournaments when they started that we thought they could be successful in, because I think winning is more fun than losing. And so we tried to keep it so they could win some matches or win some tournaments and rarely did that “playing up,” if you will. We kept them in their age groups and tried to bring home a trophy of some sort most of the time. And they enjoyed that. Winning is fun. Winning begets winning, I think.
Nancy Embree: The other thing I want to add about the balancing… Lauren was very social, and she had a great group of friends in middle school and high school, and she would balance out her tennis. She would say, “Look, I’m going out on the boat today, so I have to play tennis early.” So we just adjusted schedules around. And she was very good about making sure her tennis was in so she could have her other activities, and it just worked out with her. And so that’s what we did. They were out there very early sometimes on a Saturday morning because “at 10 o’clock I’m going here.” You know, that kind of thing. She had a group of friends all through high school and liked going to high school, and we just fit the tennis around it.
Keith Embree: And she was the one that typically initiated that. “Can we hit at 7 tomorrow so I can go spend the day on the boat with whoever?”
Nancy Embree: And she’d have a sleepover and be like, “You can come pick me up at this time to play tennis.” She wanted the tennis in, but she wanted her friends in there, also, so it seemed to work.
USTA.com: When it came to winning and losing, did you focus on the results? What was your philosophy on that?
KeithEmbree: Our philosophy throughout was, “Make sure you try your hardest the whole time,” and that was really the main focus—to just go out and try your best. As long as they gave their best, that was the main philosophy. There wasn’t any focus on winning versus losing, really. We didn’t do the match analysis on the way back in the car. If Lauren lost a match, we typically didn’t even mention it for a day or two because she was usually boiling herself inside, so [we] just left it alone, talked about other things.
USTA.com: What was it like for you to watch your kids have such success on the court? Did you anticipate that tennis would open so many doors for them? In particular Lauren, who had a ton of success as a junior, was the No. 1 player in the country in college, won NCAA titles, played pro. What has that been like for you as their parents?
Keith Embree: The stress didn’t end until really she was done with college, in terms of watching her play, but from my experience as a kid and as an adult, I got every job I ever had, which was not that many, but I had four or five professional jobs in banking, and every one of them was tennis related. You know, knew the president of the bank through tennis, and even my son today, who works for Raymond James in St. Pete, the chairman of that firm is an old-time tennis player in St. Pete. The CEO is an old-time tennis player in St. Pete who I grew up with. So I knew that it would open many doors for them as young people and as adults. It’s done nothing but good for any of us, really. And I think that hiring athletes is advantageous versus some other people because they learn the lessons about winning and losing and how to lose gracefully, how to win gracefully, how to win fairly, persevere, hard work and all those good things.
USTA.com: Lauren is a coach now and recently went back to her alma mater at Florida. How has that been for her, and for you, too?
Keith Embree: It’s been fantastic because we now live in Gainesville, where the university is. She was at Pepperdine in California—a long way—so, yeah, we’re very happy with it, and I think she is, too. Not just because it’s her alma mater, but also she’s working under the coach that she played for, and they’ve maintained contact over the years since she graduated, so she figured out it was a great opportunity and is very happy.
USTA.com: What would your message be to other tennis parents? Do you have any words of wisdom you can share with others?
Keith Embree: The main one would be don’t put any pressure on them, in terms of when you go to a tournament. Don’t put pressure on them before they go on the court, after they come off the court. You know, they put enough pressure on themselves. It’s an individual sport, so the pressure is high. So I’d say keep the pressure off. I’d say make it fun. I’d say make sure that they have as normal a life as possible, in terms of friends. And do some other things, maybe play some other sports early on, some team sports, and just see where it leads. I think they also have to kind of realize that if you want to do something with the game and be successful, put some work in. Going to the clinic Monday through Friday isn’t going to get it. You’re going to have to do a little something else, and some are willing to do that; some aren’t. And if they are, great. Make it available to them.
Nancy Embree: I just think keep it as normal as possible. Don’t force them to do anything. They need to want to do it. And it can’t be about the parent. Keith was sort of the coach and talked tennis all the time, and I was like the taxi driver and did the emotional side… “Hey, what do you want for dinner?” “What do you want to do?” I tried to keep it lighter for them because they put a lot of pressure on themselves. It’s a very hard sport out there by yourself, and I never really realized it until I started playing. And then when I make mistakes, I’m like, “Oh my goodness. I will never say anything to them again!” It’s very difficult out there, you know... when they miss a shot that parents think they should make, that kind of thing. So we were very careful in watching them. We watched from afar.
Keith Embree: Yeah, we were never near the court when we watched matches.
Nancy Embree: We didn’t want them to be watching us, and I didn’t want to be too close. It seemed to work.