WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Duckhee Lee tossed the ball into the air for his first serve in an ATP tournament match and blasted it past his opponent with a loud pop.
The 21-year-old South Korean never heard it. He was born deaf.
The tour’s first deaf professional player says he doesn’t want to be defined by the disability that he has overcome well enough to play at the sport’s highest level.
His first appearance in a top-level tournament will last at least until the second round. Lee beat Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland 7-6 (4), 6-1 in the first round of the Winston-Salem Open on Monday, earning a matchup with No. 3 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.
As much as the opening-round victory meant to Lee and his career, it might have meant even more to hearing-impaired athletes in all sports.
“Don’t be discouraged, and if you try hard, you can do anything, you can achieve anything you want,” Lee said through an interpreter, adding that he “doesn’t want people to get discouraged and get down about their disability.”
The ability to hear carries a particular importance in tennis. Players often insist on silence during points so they can hear the ball off their opponent’s strings and identify the spin in a split second.
“I’m never going to know what that’s like to compete like that,” Andy Murray said. “But he’s obviously doing extremely well. So it’s obviously an unbelievable achievement.
“I know how important hearing is in tennis,” Murray added. “To read the spins and to see how, like, if I was to play with headphones on, it’s unbelievably difficult to pick up the speed that the ball’s coming at, the spin that’s coming. We use our ears a lot to pick things up.”
Lee makes up for it with his eyes, sharpening his focus on his opponent’s swing, how that player makes contact, and the speed and spin of the ball as it’s racing toward him.
Complicating things further, he also doesn’t speak English and reads lips instead of using sign language. He relies on hand gestures from umpires making calls.
Because he can’t hear the score announcements, he keeps track of points and games in his head — which can be more difficult in smaller events that don’t have courtside scoreboards. It led to a hiccup early during his main-draw debut when he lined up to serve after a game had been decided.
“I think [the umpire] forgot to give the signal” at times during the match, he said, adding that he “was hoping he would give ‘in’ and ‘out’ signals.”
The debut in Winston-Salem is the next step up the tennis ladder for Lee, who started playing tennis at 7 — the year after he realized he was deaf, though doctors had diagnosed his condition as a toddler.
“People made fun of [me] because of the disability and said [I] shouldn’t be playing,” Lee said through the interpreter, adding that his motivation was to “enjoy [my] life by overcoming my disability.”
Lee made his debut on the ITF Futures Tour at 14 and won eight titles before he turned 18, then reached three finals of the ATP Challenger Tour, including one in June, falling to Dudi Sela at the Baptist Health Little Rock Open in Arkansas. He brought a No. 212 world ranking to the central North Carolina hardcourts.
He’ll always remember his first ATP-level victory this week — and not just because of the result. Lee was two points away from sealing the victory when thunderstorms forced a weather delay of nearly 5 hours. He and Laaksonen came back to the court at roughly 10:15 p.m. — and wrapped up their match in 87 seconds.
When he was asked how he spent the delay, Lee got his point across with pantomime, mimicking someone playing table tennis and shooting basketball, because the players lounge featured a pingpong table and pop-a-shot machine.
He smiled as his interpreter said how “he loves the facility here.”