Duck He Lee, 16, is South Korea's best men's tennis prospect in a generation. He's also deaf.
Photo via Duck Hee Lee
It's quarter-finals day at the Seoul Open and there's a sudden rush of activity around the sparsely populated stands. On center court, world No. 85 Go Soeda—the second highest ranked Japanese player and a big draw for a tournament like this, a middling stop on the Challenger Tour, the year-round treadmill for tennis' second-tier pro players—is playing. It's a jumbled mix of journeymen and hopeful young hot shots, all dreaming of a chance at the big time.
But the curiosity in the stands is directed toward Soeda's opponent, a 16-year-old with floppy, auburn dyed hair and fluorescent yellow shoes. His name is Duck Hee Lee and the word on the street is that he's South Korea's best prospect in a generation.
Lee is the best 16-year-old tennis player on the planet. At an age when most of his peers are still tentative about eschewing the comforts of the junior circuit for the wild west of the men's game, Lee has already been a professional for more than two years. With four titles, he's on the verge of reaching the world's top 300. And he's achieved all of that despite being completely deaf.
"People describe deafness as a disability, but that doesn't bother me as I see it as my biggest advantage over the other players," he tells me. "It's my special gift which normal players don't have. I never get distracted during matches by the crowd, my opponent, anything. It means I can concentrate much more on my own game."
Watching Lee trade groundstrokes with Soeda, a player 14 years his senior, the empowering nature of playing in silence becomes more clear. He is largely ambivalent to the bursts of applause or his opponent's displays of frustration. Although he eventually loses in three sets, he came close to a major upset.
"Duck's biggest strengths are mental," observes Danai Udomchoke, a veteran Thai player who once reached the third round of the Australian Open. "He's able to maintain concentration for long periods of time which means he's extremely consistent. He practices extremely hard and he's a fighter who never gives up until the last point. It's not easy to find those qualities in someone of his age."
Udomchoke and others believe that Lee's maturity stems from his inner drive, a desire not to let his disability come in the way of what he wants to achieve in life. While deaf tennis players have always been eligible to compete on the professional tour, Lee is the only one to actually do it. Most find it too hard to compensate for the difficulties in timing and balance that come with having a hearing impairment. As a result there are separate events held for deaf players. The inaugural World Deaf Championships are taking place in the UK this July.
Timing is one of the most crucial components of tennis. The ability to manage the precise moment your racket connects with the ball at increasing speeds and with increasingly finite movements to change direction, spin or impart greater force, separates professionals from the amateurs. When tennis players are just kids, it's typically timing that allows coaches and scouts to pick out the most naturally gifted players. And crucial to timing is sound: virtually all players learn to time the ball by listening to the sound of it coming off their opponent's strings, enabling them to judge pace and trajectory, and work out what shot to play next.
But Lee has never heard the sound of racket on ball. "I couldn't hear right from birth so I've never really thought about it," he says. "I started playing tennis with my own from the beginning of my career and I developed my own methods. While I don't hear the ball, I sense it instinctively. My sight and sense of body replace my hearing handicap. I can tell how my opponent's about to hit it by watching him, the way he's striking it, how he prepares for the shot. My eyes replace my ears."
Lee was 7 when he first held a racket, the same year he was officially diagnosed as being deaf. "I went to a hospital and they gave me a hearing aid. That's how I knew," he says simply. But there was to be no talk of special treatment. Lee's cousin is himself a former professional player and his family insisted he would play sports, deaf or not.
Slight of frame but with fast hands, an ability to track balls down with dogged consistency, and a bullet-like return of serve, it wasn't long before officials in Korea were taking note of his talent. At just 8 he was introduced to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at an exhibition in Seoul, a memory he still treasures to this day. Four years later, he won the prestigious Eddie Herr International Junior tournament in Florida, an event which brings together the best in the world for each age group.
Lee began touring the world with a close-knit team including his coach and agent. His father joins them when he can. At 14, he secured his first professional ranking point at a small futures tournament in Japan. It may have been the bottom rung of men's tennis but it didn't escape the notice of Nadal who tweeted his congratulations to the teenager.
But new challenges were to come. In the smallest professional tournaments, sometimes neither umpires nor line judges are available. Instead the players themselves decide whether shots are in or out. With Lee unable to hear his opponent's calls or announcement of the score, some players were unable to resist the temptation to take advantage, especially at crucial moments of a match.
"I've had to accept that cheating happens from time to time," he says. "Sometimes it still happens to me now and I feel pretty upset. As I can't hear the other player's call, I have to hope they indicate whether it's in or out with some motion or gestures so I can see them. But in some matches I don't find out what their decision was until the game's over."
Even if there are umpires and linesmen, communication on court can still be a problem. Lee can lipread his friends, family and coach fluently but because he doesn't hear 'out' calls, he will often play on after the point is over unless he sees a visible hand gesture, leading to some confusion. Doubles can be problematic.
"It was a very different experience to what I'm used to," remembers Karunuday Singh, an Indian player who partnered Lee in a tournament in Sri Lanka earlier this year. "I usually like to talk to my partners a lot and discuss tactics but in this case there was no chance of a dialogue. We used hand signals to decide on serve spots and which way we'd move after the serve and returns. When he was serving, I was taught by his team how to mouth, 'Forehand', 'Backhand' or 'Body' to him so we could discuss where he was going to go. It wasn't actually much of a problem. The only tricky part was calling for shots that were hit down the middle during a rally. That didn't get easier but if someone were to play doubles with him constantly it wouldn't be an issue at all."
Singh, a 24 year old who's been on the tour since 2007, admits he was extremely impressed by his partner's intense concentration and a little envious of his support staff.
"Playing with Duck was a good insight into his mind. He's able to just channel his focus on what's happening on court. I think his rapid success at such a young age is also because he has few or no distractions at all. He has a team of people around him who do a great job of helping him communicate, train and keep improving on a daily basis. That's really helped him maximize his potential. Few players have something like that when they're starting out."
Lee's success over the past year has enabled him to dream a little of emulating his childhood friend, 19-year-old Hyeon Chung who's broken into the world's top 100 this year. Chung will be competing in the main draw of the French Open and Wimbledon over the next few weeks, but Udomchoke says Lee still has plenty of work to do before he can think about joining him.
"Right now he's the best 16-year-old player in the world but to start winning challenger titles and matches on the ATP Tour he needs to become more aggressive and add more power to his game," Udomchoke said. "He's physically strong for a 16-year-old but he needs to improve his serve and work on his movement. He's good from side to side but in terms of moving forward he's not good enough yet. Most of his tennis is from the baseline, he rarely comes to the net but he's still so young so he has a lot of time to add those things."
Lee's prowess is already gaining him a following back in his homeland but while he appreciates that people will look to him as an inspiration for overcoming a disability, he would rather he was judged purely on his tennis success.
"I don't get the chance to go to school because I'm competing around the world and I miss my friends a lot but when I see them, they treat me like a normal high school student," he says. "They don't think about my disability and because they treat me well I don't have any difficulties in communicating with them. It's the same in tennis. I want to be rewarded and recognized because of my tennis ability and achievements. I don't really think of my career as a struggle to overcome anything. I've just done my best."