Will Serena make it to the finals just months after having a baby? Will we see Nadal and Federer come head to head, yet again? The sport’s biggest stars aside, let’s discuss a professional deaf tennis player on the rise: Duckhee Lee, a 20-year-old from South Korea.
He’s currently ranked 230 in the ATP Singles Ranking and reached a career high of 130 in 2017. Lee turned pro in 2012 at the age of 14, and did I mention that he’s deaf?!
“I’m very proud of myself as being the only deaf professional tennis player in the world at the moment,” Duckhee told BBC Sport earlier this year. “I feel a huge responsibility that my every step as a tennis player will influence other deaf people. I hope my career could give them a hopeful message that they could also overcome their disability and make their dream come true.”
Lee was diagnosed as deaf when he was a toddler. His parents chose to teach him how to read lips instead of sign language. They withdrew him from his school for the deaf when he started grade school in an effort to integrate him in the hearing world.
When it came to athletic opportunities, Lee’s parents opted out of team sports because of communication difficulties. Tennis was an option because verbal communication with teammates was not a requirement. Also, there were professional possibilities, as longterm options for employment in South Korea are limited for deaf people.
Duckhee first picked up a racket when he was seven years old. He saw his cousin playing and was hooked.
He told tennis.com that when he holds a racket, he feels more confident. It didn’t take long for Lee to take over the junior circuit in South Korea. Despite ranking third in the ITF junior rankings, many coaches and trainers worried whether or not he could compete successfully in the pros without auditory cues. For instance, hearing the ball hit your opponent’s racket can influence reaction time and advise the type of spin at play.
While these doubts made him want to quit playing at times, they ultimately kept him in the game as he wanted to prove the doubters wrong. It wasn’t easy, but each day he was proving them wrong. Lee played his first event on the ITF Pro Circuit when he was only 14 years old! He has since won a number of titles in that circuit and has reached the quarterfinals and semifinals in a few tournaments on the ATP Challenger Tour. He’s had defeats over some well-established players including Dudi Sela, Lukas Rosol, and Vasek Pospisil.
“While these doubts made him want to quit playing at times, they ultimately kept him in the game as he wanted to prove the doubters wrong.”
While he’s still working to win his first ATP tour level tournament, he’s determined to accomplish two other goals; breaking into the Top 100 and earning direct into a Grand Slam tournament (no qualifying tournament required).
When it comes to combating his deafness on the court, he relies heavily on his other senses, particularly sight.
He told Tennis World his strategy for facing his opponents.
“I focus on watching and expecting the opponent’s swing and movement, which needs a very intensive concentration of my eyes and fast decision-making for the next move,” says Lee. “I try to watch other players’ matches on websites as much as possible when I have spare time – I need image training because it gives a better understanding than giving me verbal coaching.”
One of the biggest challenges comes with the calls from the umpires. He told ATP World Tour Uncovered that some matches have even been thrown off because he’s been confused by officials’ hand signals (which can differ from one country to another), and given that tournaments are played globally, the umpire’s spoken language may be different than Lee’s. This can make it challenging for him to read their lips.
“I could communicate simple English through lip-reading with other players. However, it is impossible for me to communicate with ATP officials and referees when there is a need for long conversation,” says Duckhee.
“Deaf players are constantly looking at the umpire for scores and constantly checking the scoreboard,” line judge David Bayliss told BBC Sport. “But there are problems, if you have a net on serve they don’t always hear it and the umpire has to try and stop the rally.”
Despite the challenges, Lee keeps a positive attitude.
“Because I’ve never heard before, I can’t imagine how I would play if I could,” says Lee. “Deafness is a part of my tennis life. It sometimes gives me disadvantages, but it has never discouraged me.”
“Deafness is a part of my tennis life. It sometimes gives me disadvantages, but it has never discouraged me.”
Some might even argue that not being able to hear the boos from the crowd would be an advantage. “I think blocking out all potential distractions can be an advantage,” tennis coach Judy Murray, mom of two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, has said.
Murray says she saw Lee playing in the juniors a while back and believes he is a great role model for other upcoming deaf players.
“Disability is not about what you can’t do, but what you can do,” Judy says. “Clearly he had a huge talent and was not letting the fact that he couldn’t hear have any impact on where he wanted to go with his game and that was wonderful to see.”
Even current world number 1 player, Rafael Nadal, who Lee admires, has applauded Duckhee for his “strong determination and mental toughness”. Nadal invited Lee to practice with him at the 2014 French Open when Lee was just 16 years old!
While he did not qualify to compete in this year’s US Open, Lee is a contender for the Next Gen ATP Finals taking place in Milan November 6-10. It’s a showcase of young talent on the ATP World Tour and features the world’s top seven 21-and-under singles players and one wild card. As of this writing, Lee is #25 on the list and rising. Regardless, I have no doubt we’ll be seeing great things from Lee in the future!
Do you know of any other deaf professional tennis players? Let us know in the comments!