Duckhee Lee made history Monday as the first deaf player to win an ATP main draw match, defeating Henri Laaksonen 7-6(4), 6-1 in the first round of the Winston-Salem Open.
Lee, 21, turned pro at age 15 and was ranked as high as No. 130 in the ATP singles rankings in April 2017. The South Korean is currently No. 212 and will face world No. 40 Hubert Hurkacz in the second round.
Becoming the first player with a hearing impairment to win on the tour means approaching the game differently.
Lee: Tennis allows me to ‘survive in normal society’
Lee went up 7-6(4), 5-1, 30-15 when a rain storm hit and forced a delay to the game. It resumed approximately five hours later, at approximately 10:15 p.m. local time, and Lee finished up his victory.
He has come close to making the main draw at a Grand Slam three times, including a tight loss last year at Roland Garros.
In a feature for Tennis.com, Lee said the sport is his “best opportunity to survive in a normal society.”
Duckhee Lee (South Korea🇰🇷) becomes first deaf player to win an ATP match in #WinstonSalemOpen— Julia Elbaba (@JulesElbaba) August 20, 2019
“Tennis is my best opportunity to survive in normal society.”
Another example of how tennis brings people from all different upbringings and backgrounds together🎾 @ATP_Tour @WSOpen pic.twitter.com/x2wqeWpCuG
He said he learned he was deaf at age 6 and was discouraged to pursue his tennis dreams. He told ATP Tour:
“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.”
Tennys Sandgren, the 28-year-old American ranked No. 73, said he beat the young player a few years ago and afterward Lee approached him with a Google translator to ask about his weaknesses.
“For someone’s who’s deaf and doesn’t speak English well at all, to put yourself out there like that ... I wouldn’t do it! I was really cool.”
Lee is coached by his cousin, who said they can read each other and communicate via writing and text.
Challenges of playing tennis hearing impaired
Lee was taught to read lips by his mother, Mi-Ja Park, as a way of “communicating with normal people,” she told Tennis.com. He doesn’t know sign language, which can sometimes create further language barriers with the umpires. When there are issues on the court, or discrepancies in the score, he has trouble relaying that and understanding what is happening.
Not only can Lee not hear line calls or the score during a match, he doesn’t have the benefit of hearing the ball. Players said that’s a huge disadvantage.
Sandgren described it, via ATP Tour:
"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.”
“We use our ears a lot to pick things up. It’s obviously a huge disadvantage, so to be able to do what he’s doing is a huge effort.”
Lee said he is reliant on what he sees and notices a player’s movement to read the ball, per Tennis.com.
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