© Getty Images

Duckhee Lee in action at the 2014 US Open junior tournament.

Flashback: Stars of Tomorrow - Duckhee Lee

Hearing and speech-impaired Lee makes steady climb up the Rankings

Editor's Note: This feature was originally published on 18 July 2015. Duckhee Lee is making his ATP Tour main draw debut this week at the Winston-Salem Open.

Duckhee Lee is in Tegal, Indonesia, and is comfortably winning the first set 3-1 of an ITF Futures quarter-final match against Indonesia’s No. 1, Christopher Rungkat. Lee slaps a passing shot winner to the open court to break Rungkat’s serve. He pumps his fist to his team and trots over to change sides of the court. There is just one problem; while the chair umpire signaled Lee’s ball good, he announced the score as deuce, not game. The 17 year old from South Korea does not understand why the umpire and Rungkat are both staring at him. It would take a few minutes to unwind the knot.

If you did not know Lee, saw him in his hot pink shirt, lime green tennis shoes, hair with K-Pop highlight streaks, and watched him waving his arms at the chair umpire; you might think that here is another hot headed tennis player. And you would be correct, except there is one other thing that many have not picked up on yet. Lee is both hearing and speech impaired.

On the ITF Futures circuit where officiating standards are much lower than the ATP World Tour, Duckhee Lee thinks that he has just been robbed by either a linesmen or the chair umpire who are all from Indonesia. It is easy to understand why. Lee cannot hear overrules from the chair umpire or the umpire calling the score. Many ITF Futures scoreboards only indicate the set score, and not the game score. 

What follows next is a chain reaction of lost in translation. Due to his speech impediment the umpire cannot understand what Lee is trying to say and because of his hearing impediment he cannot hear what the umpire is saying. Lee uses sign language to his translator all the while waving his hands and arms at both the translator and chair umpire. Locals down in Central Java do not get to see that much tennis and do not know about Lee’s disability. They begin to laugh at Lee’s grunts and mimic his arm movements. Tension mounts and his extreme frustration takes over. In a matter of seconds he has lost the game and the momentum. On the change-over, the crowd continues to mock Lee’s outburst and seeing this, he hides his tears under a towel.

“I sometime have trouble hearing the umpire’s call,” admits Lee. “When the match hasn’t gone smoothly due to my lack of hearing of an umpire’s call it is difficult for me to control my mind and emotions. I try to express myself when the call seems not correct or fair. I try to communicate with them via body language or facial expression.”

In Korea there is a word, gibun, which basically means to hurt someone’s pride or cause loss of dignity. South Koreans are a fiercely proud people and the men learn to behave macho at an early age. Traditional music which is loaded with heavy bass drumbeats and patriotic lyrics and even the national dish, bimbimbap, hot stone bowl full of meat, vegetables and spicy cabbage is man food at its best. Competing in professional tennis is how Lee earns dignity.

Now, with wounded pride, Lee lets his racquet do the talking for him. He wins nine of the next eleven games and the match. Lee would carry that energy all the way to winning the tournament. And to add insult to injury, he would do the same the next week when he defeated Rungkat again, this time in the final. 

Lee's Rise
Duckhee Lee was born in Jecheon, a little town tucked in the mountains where rivers and streams flow down to fill reservoirs and lakes. Despite having only one main street and one five star hotel, Jecheon attracts Koreans seeking a bit of rest and relax destination away from the bustle of Seoul. Jecheon is the kind of place where grandparents live and old school Korean values are practiced daily.

There is not much that Doug MacCurdy has not seen or done in the role of tennis development around the world. Former ITF Director of Development, MacCurdy has headed development operations in the USA, China, India and most recently, Korea. MacCurdy was based in Korea when Lee came through the pipeline.

“I remember Duckhee Lee very well,” begins MacCurdy. “He was always one of the kids who demonstrated an advanced level of tennis in our identification and training camps. He was also very lively and social with all the other kids. I think where Lee’s team was smart was with his scheduling. In the beginning of his junior tournaments he would go faraway and come back with a bundle of points. I see he has done the same with his professional scheduling.”

MacCurdy brings up an argument as old as professional tennis coaching; which comes first ability or ranking? One side says if you are good you should be able to compete with the best starting out, and the other side feels that for some players going to the outer banks of tennis where the draw is considered weaker and wins more frequent while developing game and confidence is another option. Jimmy Connors early days as a professional is an excellent example of the latter.

If you trace Lee’s Emirates ATP Rankings history the line on your paper would like just like the takeoff of a jet airplane; a slow, steady rise. Currently, Lee is No. 305, but thanks to another Futures title last week in Japan he will enter the top 300 next week. This makes Duckhee Lee the youngest player ranked inside the Top 300.

Consider Duckhee Lee’s results since he first started playing professional about a year and half ago. To date, Lee has participated in 36 ITF Futures, made the finals of seven and won five. This means that he made the finals about once for every five tournaments and then won a little more than two out of three of those finals. On the ATP Challenger Tour, Lee has played in six events and only lost once to a lower ranked opponent. What is most obvious is about Lee’s player activity is that his bottom line is rock solid. Say what you want about what he needs to do to get better; Duckhee Lee rarely has a bad day at the office.

Speaking of game, here is what Duckhee Lee looks like during a point. Lee has a weak first serve and a really weak second serve, but he has compensated with a lethal return. Once the ball is in play, he employs a flat-line style of tennis that requires precision guided strokes and near perfect ball striking to be effective. The plus side is that balls struck flat travel faster than balls loaded with spin so if Lee is on song, he can cut his opponent’s legs out from underneath him waxing him side to side. The drawback is when conditions are less than ideal and a greater margin of error is needed for the job. On the forehand side, Lee has an excessive left shoulder rotation which allows him to hold his shot till his opponent commits. And similarly, the backhand is best described having an extreme shoulder rotation. The obvious advantage for Lee to using so much trunk in his swing is that he can generate plenty of power with his large muscle group rather than depending on his arms and equally effective is that he can disguise his intended target to the absolute last millisecond before firing off.

Former ATP player, Danai Udomchoke, has played and lost to Duckhee Lee. Most recently in Indonesia.

“His serve needs a lot of work, but he is young,” says Udomchoke. “However, considering that he has not learned to volley yet, it is remarkable how well he plays with the tools that he already has for his age. It is if not being able to win points with his serve or by approaching the net has helped him master the baseline. I was surprised at how fast he read where I was going to hit the ball.”

Christopher Rungkat agrees with Udomchoke on the last bit.

“He always seems to know where I am going to hit the ball,” begins Rungkat. “I don’t think he is guessing, it is more like he is reading my mind. Yes, he is fast, but so are a lot of players. If I had to pick one word to sum up his game, I would say- anticipation. How he knows where the ball is going off my racquet so early is most impressive.”

Overcoming Obstacles
Ryan Hodierne is a sport biomechanist at the Singapore Sports Institute and has studied the subject of deaf athletes. His research seems to collaborate with what Rungkat feels about Lee.

“He would have to use his sight, at a heightened sense, to compensate as a result of not being able to hear the ball being struck by the racket,” claims Hodierne. “It is known that with the removal of one sense, the remaining four senses are heightened.”

Anyone who has ever watched a tennis match has most likely observed a player pausing at the baseline between points while delaying his serve till a low flying airplane passes overhead. Or the chair umpire asking for the crowd to please be quiet. So, what happens to a player who cannot hear at all? How does he adjust?

Brian Ehlers is considered an expert on deaf athletes. Ehlers was the first deaf volleyball player to play for the USA Volleyball program and participated in the 1980 and 1984 Olympics.

“It’s very true that an athlete with a sensory condition[s] loss will gain advantages, if they use them; however, the athlete’s other mental and physical [eye and touch] senses do come into play, as the body finds other ways to compensate for a sensory loss elsewhere,” states Ehlers. “Is it possible to have tunnel vision with a hearing impairment? Yes, the athletes mind becomes more focused and analytical and creative, as it finds way to utilize the other senses to better coordinate his actions in unison with the projected contact point, velocity and trajectory of the ball.”

Though Duckhee Lee has never met Brian Elhers, he seems to agree.

“My hearing difficulty does help me to focus on my own play and match,” Lee admits.

Yong-Il Yoon, former Korean tennis national player and coach of another Korean teen standout, Hyeon Chung, knows Lee very well.

“Lee is constantly communicating with Chung and other Korean players on the circuit via text messaging, and social media,” says Yoon. “Lee already has many fans that follow him and his progress at home."

“Throughout my tours I have met a lot of fans and supporters and especially Korean fans,” says Lee.

“Any athlete wants to make their parents proud,” claims Ehlers. “Yet for those athletes who have a condition, we know how emotional it is for our parents to see and experience their own kid having something others kids don’t have. Having a condition makes us deaf athletes try extra hard to show our appreciation to our parents; whom have dedicated all their extra work and time in their lives into helping us.

“A deaf athlete can become more driven and excited about proving himself to others that he belongs and can be or is like everybody else without condition,” continues Ehlers.  “A deaf athlete wants to make a mark in the world via acceptance and respect by others for what they accomplish, but far more importantly, for whom they are and what they can offer to others.”

Duckhee Lee may not be able to hear the umpire call the ball out or tell his opponent good shot. But he sure will be able to see the cheers from the crowd as he continues to win tennis matches and collect trophies. And by doing so, he will make his parents, country and all athletes with hearing and speech impairments very proud.