Editor’s Note: ATPTour.com is resurfacing features to bring fans closer to their favourite players and tournaments. This story was originally published on 19 August 2019.
As a child, Duckhee Lee was discouraged by others to pursue his dreams of being a professional tennis player. The 21-year-old South Korean firmly proved his naysayers wrong on Monday at the Winston-Salem Open, defeating Henri Laaksonen 7-6(4), 6-1 to become the first deaf player to win an ATP Tour main draw match.
“People made fun of me for my disability. They told me I shouldn’t be playing,” said Lee. “It was definitely difficult, but my friends and family helped me get through. I wanted to show everyone that I could do this.
“My message for people who are hearing impaired is to not be discouraged. If you try hard, you can do anything.”
The milestone moment was met with celebration from his peers, all of whom admire his relentless pursuit to make the most of his potential.
“I beat him a few years ago and he came up to me with a Google translator after the match and said, ‘What are my weaknesses?’ recalled Tennys Sandgren. “For someone who’s deaf and doesn’t speak English well at all, to put yourself out there like that… I wouldn’t do it! It was really cool.
“You learn so much about how your opponent hits the ball based on the sound of the shot. If you can’t hear it… You have to have insane skill and insane talent.”
Matches on the ATP Tour are often decided by the smallest of margins, an unforced error at a crucial moment or a clutch winner at 5/5 in a tie-break. Players admitted that walking on court already giving up the advantage of hearing is unfathomable to them.
“If I was to play with headphones on, it’s unbelievably difficult to pick up the speed of the ball, the spin that’s coming off the racquet… We use our ears a lot to pick things up,” added Andy Murray. “It’s obviously a huge disadvantage, so to be able to do what he’s doing is a huge effort.”
The basic aspects of a tennis match that players take for granted are things that Lee, who was diagnosed as deaf at age two, has never relied on. He can’t hear line calls or the score being called, forcing him to rely on signals from the umpire or people on his team.
When a scoreboard malfunction at 5-1 in the second set against Laaksonen showed him up 40/15 when the score was actually 30/15, Lee was unable to communicate his score question to the chair umpire or understand the umpire’s responses. Both men found themselves at a brief standstill, unsure of how to proceed. A tournament volunteer then held up three fingers to indicate “30,” which he understood.
Lee does not know sign language because he was taught to read lips in Korean as a child. However, his speech isn’t always clear to native speakers. During his post-match interview, a tournament volunteer translated English questions in Korean to his fiancee, Soopin, and she gave them to Lee. He then responded to Soopin, who clarified the answers in Korean to the translator, and the final response was fed to local reporters in English.
But Lee’s success as a professional has been much more seamless. He played his first ATP Challenger Tour event at age 14 and has remained a staple at that level for the past four years. After playing almost exclusively in Asia until now, his hard-court swing in the United States has paid dividends. Prior to his Winston-Salem breakthrough, he reached his first ATP Challenger Tour final in nearly three years this June in Little Rock.
“I ate the spaghetti here and loved it,” said Lee, smiling. “I think that America has a good environment. Everything seems to fit well for me, so I’ve been having fun.”
The fun will continue on Tuesday when he meets third seed Hubert Hurkacz. But while the opportunity is the biggest of his young career as he looks to soon crack the Top 100 of the ATP Rankings, his approach will remain the same.
“I’m going to go to the match with the same attitude,” said Lee. “I’m going to do my best and see what happens.”