Photo: Corinne DubreuilDuck Hee Lee (KOR)
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA: Making it big in the tennis world is hard enough if you’re blessed
with every advantage you can get, be it height, power or mental strength. When you have a disability, it is even tougher.
Duck Hee Lee, a 14-year-old from Korea, is already used to standing out from the crowd. Born totally deaf, Lee can feel vibrations but cannot hear line calls or anything the umpire says and has to rely on their hand gestures or the scoreboard to know what’s going on.
But Lee, a slight young man born in Jechon City, Korea, copes impressively with all the disadvantages that deafness brings to his life and his tennis. At the age of 12, he won the prestigious Eddie Herr International Junior tournament in Bradenton, FL and two years on, he qualified for the Australian Open Junior Championships.
On Monday, his involvement in the tournament ended with a 63 63 defeat by Christian Garin of Chile but it is his ability to beat the odds that is already drawing a lot of attention, both at home in Korea and in Australia, where he was stunned to learn that he was already becoming famous. “Me?” he asked, shaking his head in disbelief.
Understandably, communication is the biggest problem for Lee. Off the court, he has learnt to lip-read his friends and coach, Hoon Park-Kyung, and speaks back to them in Korean, without using sign language. On the court, things are a little more difficult, particularly because he doesn’t want to draw attention to himself.
“The one thing that’s difficult is the communication with the umpires, both chair umpires and linesmen,” he said, through his coach and with the help of a translator. “I don’t hear the calls, especially the out calls, so sometimes I just continue. That’s kind of difficult but it’s nothing special.”
The umpire had to call a let a few times during his match with Garin, when Lee had not heard a call from his opponent to wait, or when someone in the crowd was moving behind the server.
“I do worry about that because today it happened a lot of times,” he said. “The chair umpire already called wait but I couldn’t hear that so there were a lot of lets. I wanted to see big (gestures) from the umpire during the match.”
Though not being able to hear the sound made when his opponent hits the ball is a big problem – players use the noise made to help them judge the speed and spin – Lee said there is one advantage to not hearing everything during an average match.
“Actually I don’t care about my disability at all times and on the court, it’s easy to focus on my match because I can’t hear anything,” he said. “So it’s more convenient to play.”
Lee is targeting a place in the junior top 10 this year and, like most young players, wants to be the world No 1 as a professional. For now, though, he is delighted to be mixing it with some of the world’s best juniors.