”I got really interested in watching tennis, and I said, ‘Oh, why can’t I play?’” Lee Duck-hee said. “My cousin gave me the racket, I tried some strokes, and I liked it. I was really attracted to tennis; I just liked swinging the racket.”
His parents committed fully, too, placing high stakes on Lee’s nascent tennis career.
“It was not like a hobby or for fun; we were really serious,” Park said. “When his father and I had our first meeting with his first coach, we told him that we’re not here just for fun: we’re making his career and a future path. So, please, take these lessons seriously. If he has no chance and no potential, we won’t continue.”
Lee remained based in his family’s apartment in Jecheon, where his mother works as a hairdresser and his father as a reporter, but his tennis began to gain notice nationwide.
Even as Lee’s wins piled up through each successive age bracket, many parents and coaches remained doubtful.
“Ninety percent of the coaching staff and parents and family of other players, they always said Duck-hee cannot reach a professional level,” Park said. “They always said that this is elementary school level and the ball speed is really slow, so he can do it. But when he reaches professional level the ball speed will be really fast, so he cannot react, because he cannot hear.”
She added: “We tried not to hear this kind of criticism. Me and my husband, we tried to give him something he can do for his life as a human being. And we didn’t have anything other than tennis.”
Though no deaf players have achieved professional success comparable to Lee’s, there have been a handful of deaf and hard-of-hearing tennis players who have excelled at the collegiate level in the United States.
Paige Stringer, who founded the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss, played for the University of Washington, where she had a doubles partner who was also deaf. She hypothesized that deaf players’ disadvantage in not being able to hear their opponents hit the ball can be compensated for by increased visual acuity.
“People who were born deaf or hard of hearing may have a stronger sense of intuition in general, and tend to see subtle clues in a person’s face or body language better than people with normal hearing,” Stringer said. “They are more visual, because when one sense is compromised, other senses are heightened to compensate. If my hypothesis is correct, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may have an advantage in tennis because they can pick up visual cues faster and better as to their opponent’s plans, and may have better reflexes because they see things sooner.”
Hard-of-hearing players often learn most about how important hearing is to their tennis when they are forced to adapt to playing without the hearing aids or cochlear implants they rely on in daily life, which are not allowed at deaf-only competitions like the quadrennial Deaflympics. Having had the experience of playing both with and without sound makes these players uniquely qualified to comment on the role sound plays in their tennis.
Evan Pinther, who played for Florida Gulf Coast University, cited the lack of feedback from his own strokes as his biggest cause of discomfort on court when he was restricted from using hearing amplifiers.
“My anxiety level goes up without my hearing aids,” Pinther said. “I much prefer to play with my hearing aids because I can hear the ball so much better. I always loved hearing the ball explode off my strings when I hit it perfectly; it gave me confidence to hear that sound the ball makes when hit well.”
Emily Hangstefer, who played for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, also said the adjustment was frustrating.
“Training for the Deaflympics, I realized I relied on hearing instead of watching or feeling the ball,” she said. “It took me about five weeks to get in the habit of watching the ball instead of hearing it. Once my hearing was taken away, I had to rely on my other senses — touch and sight.”
Keen anticipation has become Lee’s strength. Woo, his cousin and coach, said Lee could read what kind of shot his opponent will make by closely watching his backswing. Christopher Rungkat, a former opponent of Lee’s, expressed awe at his anticipation.
“He always seems to know where I am going to hit the ball,” Rungkat told reporters last year. “I don’t think he is guessing; it is more like he is reading my mind.”
Striving to Be the Best
Reaching a No. 1 world ranking is Lee’s goal, but first he aspires to become the best player in South Korean history, which would mean passing the career high of Lee Hyung-taik, who reached No. 36 in 2007 and won one ATP singles title.
Tennis lags behind sports like baseball and soccer in popularity in Asia, and South Korea does not currently host an ATP event. But with Lee Duck-hee and another talented young player, 104th-ranked Chung Hyeon, 20, the Korean Tennis Association hopes the two will be able to lift the country’s Davis Cup team back into the World Group, from which it was relegated in 2008.
Under new leadership, the association hopes that newly secured funding will help players like Lee and Chung, as well as develop juniors by paying for travel to warmer climates during winter months.
Lee doesn’t believe that his hearing impairment will hold him back — “It doesn’t really matter,” he said — but he acknowledged that another physical disadvantage might: At 5 feet 9, he is a shrub amid the redwoods of professional men’s tennis. In an era of increasingly physical competition, only one player in the ATP top 50 is as short as Lee, David Ferrer. Only six players are under 6 feet.
Lee travels with Woo, who serves as a hitting partner and speaks limited English, as the two navigate their first laps on the circuit together. Woo said that although Lee might sometimes feel intimidated by being one of the youngest on tour, he keeps an unrelentingly positive attitude, and is comfortable socially interacting with other players.
While Lee can compete without much issue on court, save for sometimes not noticing out or let calls, other tour regulations may prove challenging for a deaf player. All players are required to participate in news conferences after each match, if requested by the news media.
While he is effusive in nonverbal communications across linguistic boundaries, formal interviews can be burdensome for Lee because he must read an interpreter’s lips, and his own speech is often not readily understood. When Lee was interviewed by a Korean television station after a match at the National Sports Festival, the station used subtitles. There can also be benefits to Lee’s unique situation, however.
“Of course I do want my player to be treated as a normal player, but we have some opportunities and some advantages from being deaf, business-wise,” Lee Dong-yeop, his agent, said. “Because no one has done this before.”
One of the first boosts came from Hyundai, the Korean car manufacturer, which began sponsoring Lee when he was 13 and recently renewed its support through 2020. In a statement, Hyundai said that it was “astonished and inspired by his relentless spirit to reach the top as a tennis player despite his handicap of being deaf,” and that the company “felt the responsibility to give him support as a responsible company in the Korean society.”
Funding from Hyundai has given Lee a stable financial base which few developing players enjoy. His agent hopes that increased funds, both through prize money and additional sponsorships, might someday allow Lee to travel with a full-time manager and translator.
“Money can solve that kind of problem,” he said.
Starting Monday, Lee will compete in a playoff in Zhuhai, China, held for Asian players for a regional wild card into the Australian Open. If he does not win that event, he would have another chance to reach his first Grand Slam main draw by winning three matches in the qualifying rounds in Melbourne. With continued success at the Challenger level, his ranking may steadily climb into the Top 100, which would allow him to enter main draws at Grand Slam events directly.
Stringer said she believed that there was no reason deaf athletes should be less common in the elite levels of tennis than they are in the general population.
“To reach the top of any sport is limited to a very select group of talented athletes,” she said. “So it’s a percentages thing. The odds are that more people with normal hearing will be in the Top 150 than those with deafness. I bet Lee Duck-hee’s success has to do with his athletic talents, personality, intelligence, work ethic, opportunities, and the support group he has around him; his deafness is less of a factor than those attributes.”
An earlier version of this article misstated the surname of a college player. He is Evan Pinther, not Stringer.