The South Korean, making his debut at Wimbledon in the boys’ events, was born deaf and however far his career takes him, his achievements will always be played out in silence.
His unusual story has already caught the attention of Nadal and Roger Federer, who have been aware of his exploits from an early age. Painstakingly conversing through lip-reading with his father, some writing in Korean, and then into English through his agent, Lee said he relies on instinct to compensate for being unable to hear his opponent striking the ball.
On court, he cannot hear line calls or the umpire or how loudly the ball comes off the racquet, but does not view it as a handicap. “When I play tennis, my hearing doesn’t give me any difficulty. No problems at all,” he said. “If I was to hear, I want to hear the fans cheering.
“I feel — by my body, I’ve got the instinct — the reaction of the opponent. So I already think he’s going to hit harder or slower, even though I don’t hear it. I’ve got the instinct and can get the sound of the opponent. From now on, I’ve got to build up that instinct, so I’ll do it. No problem... the opponents makes whatever sound or whatever body language he has I don’t really care about it.”
The right-hander has already won a series of junior titles and has his sights set on Grand Slam glory one day. Lee made his debut on the Wimbledon grass in the singles, losing to Chilean seventh seed Christian Garin 6-2, 4-6, 2-6 on Court 15 on Saturday, but has another shot in the boys’ doubles on his favourite surface.
When Nadal and Federer played an exhibition match in Seoul in 2006, Lee was invited along and got to practice with the two greats. Nadal has kept his eye on the emerging youngster and spread the word to his 4.6 million Twitter followers when Lee earned his first ATP ranking point in April.
“A overcoming story of #DuckHeeLee teaches us that we must fight!” the 12-time Grand Slam champion wrote. With the inspiration flowing both ways between Lee and Nadal, the South Korean might yet realise his dream of making a big noise on the tour.