ASAN, South Korea — To improve its chances in the boys' team tennis event at the National Sports Festival in Asan, Mapo High School in Seoul brought in a ringer from Jecheon, two hours southeast of the capital. His name was Lee Duck-hee, and he had first caught the coach's eye when he was in elementary school.
Mapo High's players pressed against the fence along the dusty hardcourts and chanted their support while Lee crushed forehand winners past his bespectacled opponent in the final. The 6-1, 6-1 win took little time — no surprise, given that Lee is the best teenage player in South Korea, and a professional ranked 143rd in the world.
"Seeing the level of skill, power and returning is totally different than high school level," said Jeong Yeong-sok, his doubles partner at the tournament.
But even among the game's elite, Lee, 18, is exceptional. He is deaf, and no deaf player in the sport's professional era has reached these heights.
In tennis, simply seeing the ball is believed to be insufficient. Hearing the ball, top players say, enables faster reactions — a crucial advantage in a sport where blazingly fast serves and powerful groundstrokes mean that even the tiniest fraction of a second matters.
"There are so many different spins in tennis, and I can hear a lot of them coming off someone's racket because I know what they all sound like," said Katie Mancebo, a college tennis coach and volunteer coach for the U.S. deaf tennis team. "But a deaf player doesn't know that sound, so they have to focus more on what the other person is doing, how they're making contact, and what the ball looks like as it's coming over the net."
Joo Hyun-sang, tennis coach at Mapo High School, said he had initially been skeptical of Lee's potential.
"When I met him the first time, I had certain doubts that being deaf would prevent him from being a great player," he said. "But I grew confident from watching him develop and improve. I was very confident he could do it."
Though already the second-highest-ranked player of professionals 18 and under, Lee has become a breakout star. He has yet to play a main-draw match at an ATP tournament or a Grand Slam, though he reached the final of a Challenger event, the level below the ATP World Tour, for the first time in September in Taiwan, and has made two semifinals since.
But if he continues to rise, Lee will debunk much of what is understood about the intricacies of tennis.
A quicker reaction
Studies have shown that humans react more quickly to an auditory stimulus than a visual one. According to research compiled by the National Institutes of Health last year, the mean reaction time to visual stimuli is 180-200 milliseconds, and 140-160 milliseconds for auditory stimuli.
At Wimbledon in 2003, Andy Roddick said that his first reaction to an opponent's shots comes from his hearing, as does his initial information about the shot coming toward him.
"You can hear how hard someone hits a ball," Roddick said. "If they hit it hard and flat, it really makes a popping sound. That's maybe one of the first things that tells you rather than actually seeing the ball. Like trying the drop shot, all of a sudden, I hear it not come off the racket. It's part of the reaction process. I think you need to hear the ball pretty clearly to play at your highest level."
Todd Perry, an Australian former doubles player who works as a coach, said that he often listens to his players' shots to hear how strokes can be improved.
"While coaching, you can hear the clean hit off the racket, and you can change things to make sure you get the clean hit off the racket, which is all just through sound," he said. "If you watch different people, the sound from different players is quite different if you put your focus in on that."
In his seminal 1974 book The Inner Game of Tennis, W. Timothy Gallwey preached attentiveness to the sounds of the sport, describing the feedback loop created by close attention to the sounds of one's own strokes to replicate the "crack" of a successful shot.
"I learned how effective the remembering of certain sounds can be as a cue for the built-in computer within our brains," Gallwey wrote. "While one listens to the sounds of his forehand, he can hold in his memory the sound that results from solid contact; as a result, the body will tend to repeat the elements of behavior which produced that sound."
Martina Navratilova has been one of the most strident proclaimers of the importance of sound in the game. She has called excessive grunting "cheating" because she thinks it unfairly disguises the sound of the ball off the racket. At the 1993 U.S. Open, she blamed the noise from planes passing overhead for interfering with her play.
"You really depend on hearing the ball being hit, particularly when you are at the net," Navratilova said. "You first hear the ball. Then you react to the speed and spin according to the sound. And when you can't hear it, it really throws you off. I did miss some volleys there because I didn't hear the ball."
Andy Murray also struggled with cacophonous conditions at this year's U.S. Open, when rain pounded down on the new roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium.
"We use our ears when we play; it's not just the eyes," Murray said. "It helps us pick up the speed of the ball, the spin that's on the ball, how hard someone's hitting it.
"If we played with our ears covered or with headphones on, it would be a big advantage if your opponent wasn't wearing them. It's tricky, you know? You can still do it, but it's harder, for sure."
Murray's hypothetical example was once put to the test. Tobias Burz, a deaf player who serves as the technical director for tennis at the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, recounted an experiment he once conducted with a higher-ranked hearing opponent. After winning their first set, 6-2, his opponent was curious what it was like to be a deaf player, and used earplugs and wore headphones for their next set. Burz won, 6-3.
A surprising diagnosis
Park Mi-ja and her husband, Lee Sang-jin, could tell that their infant son was different, but they were reluctant to seek a diagnosis. Lee Duck-hee was born while his father completed his compulsory service in the South Korean military, leaving Park alone with her young son. She hoped that whatever was affecting him would pass.
Park took her son to a hospital in Seoul for testing when he was 2. "The doctor just said, 'This baby cannot hear anything, he's deaf,'" she said. "I was very surprised, and I couldn't react. But I knew I couldn't go home right away."
Park went to visit her sister, who lived in Seoul, and there she broke down. "From the moment I saw her, all the grief and sadness came and I couldn't stop crying," she said.
After a few hours, she composed herself and called her husband. He drove from Jecheon to Seoul to pick her up. During that ride home, they made the decision not to wallow.
"We started discussing how not to be sad, but instead how we can support and raise Duck-hee," she said. "He's our first son. The sadness period was only about a week, and then we were brave enough to move on to the next step, which was researching disability education."
When Duck-hee was 4, his parents enrolled him in a school for the disabled in Chungju, an hour away from home. While most students lived in the dormitory there, seeing their families only on weekends, Park was determined to have more time with her son. She drove him the hour to and from school each day, then sent him to a regular school in the afternoons to ensure he was comfortable in a hearing world.
"I wanted him to be integrated with normal people," she said. "When I saw older students at the deaf school, they only knew sign language, so when they took the bus, they had to communicate with the bus driver by writing something down. And when they become 18, 19 years old, the chances for getting a job are very limited to a person who only speaks sign language."
Having observed lessons at the deaf school, Park began to teach her son to speak and read lips herself in the evenings, using picture cards of various mouth positions. After a few years, Duck-hee left the school for the deaf completely; as per his parents' wishes, he never learned sign language.
"Only a few percent of the deaf students can be socialized with normal people, making their own money to live," Park said. "Most of them, they give up and go back to live with their parents, and the parents have to take care of them. We just wanted Duck-hee to be independent and live as a normal person."
Lee Sang-jin had set a record in the 200-meter dash when he competed at the National Sports Festival as a high school student, and saw sports as the best path for his son. He believed his son's deafness would make a sport that required communication with teammates an impossibility, so he focused on individual sports like golf, archery and shooting. But when Duck-hee went to watch a cousin, Woo Chung-hyo, play tennis, his mind was made up.
"I got really interested in watching tennis, and I said, 'Oh, why can't I play?'" Lee Duck-hee said. "My cousin gave me the racket, I tried some strokes, and I liked it. I was really attracted to tennis; I just liked swinging the racket."
His parents committed fully, too, placing high stakes on Lee's nascent tennis career.
"It was not like a hobby or for fun; we were really serious," Park said. "When his father and I had our first meeting with his first coach, we told him that we're not here just for fun: we're making his career and a future path. So, please, take these lessons seriously. If he has no chance and no potential, we won't continue."
Lee Duck-hee remained based in his family's apartment in Jecheon, where his mother works as a hairdresser and his father as a reporter, but his tennis began to gain attention nationwide.
Even as Lee's wins piled up through each successive age bracket, many parents and coaches remained doubtful.
"Ninety percent of the coaching staff and parents and family of other players, they always said Duck-hee cannot reach a professional level," Park said. "They always said that this is elementary school level and the ball speed is really slow, so he can do it. But when he reaches professional level the ball speed will be really fast, so he cannot react, because he cannot hear."
She added: "We tried not to hear this kind of criticism. Me and my husband, we tried to give him something he can do for his life as a human being. And we didn't have anything other than tennis."
Though no deaf players have achieved professional success comparable to Lee's, there have been a handful of deaf and hard-of-hearing tennis players who have excelled at the collegiate level in the United States.
Paige Stringer, who founded the Global Foundation for Children with Hearing Loss, played for the University of Washington, where she had a doubles partner who was also deaf. She hypothesized that deaf players' disadvantage in not being able to hear their opponents hit the ball can be compensated for by increased visual acuity.
"People who were born deaf or hard of hearing may have a stronger sense of intuition in general, and tend to see subtle clues in a person's face or body language better than people with normal hearing," Stringer said. "They are more visual, because when one sense is compromised, other senses are heightened to compensate. If my hypothesis is correct, people who are deaf or hard of hearing may have an advantage in tennis because they can pick up visual cues faster and better as to their opponent's plans, and may have better reflexes because they see things sooner."
Hard-of-hearing players often learn most about how important hearing is to their tennis when they are forced to adapt to playing without the hearing aids or cochlear implants they rely on in daily life, which are not allowed at deaf-only competitions like the quadrennial Deaflympics. Having had the experience of playing both with and without sound makes these players qualified to comment on the role sound plays in their tennis.
Evan Pinther, who played for Florida Gulf Coast University, cited the lack of feedback from his own strokes as his biggest cause of discomfort on court when he was restricted from using hearing amplifiers.
"My anxiety level goes up without my hearing aids," Pinther said. "I much prefer to play with my hearing aids because I can hear the ball so much better. I always loved hearing the ball explode off my strings when I hit it perfectly; it gave me confidence to hear that sound the ball makes when hit well."
Emily Hangstefer, who played for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, also said the adjustment was frustrating.
"Training for the Deaflympics, I realized I relied on hearing instead of watching or feeling the ball," she said. "It took me about five weeks to get in the habit of watching the ball instead of hearing it. Once my hearing was taken away, I had to rely on my other senses — touch and sight."
Keen anticipation has become Lee's strength. Woo, his cousin and coach, said Lee could read what kind of shot his opponent will make by closely watching his backswing.
Christopher Rungkat, a former opponent of Lee's, expressed awe at his anticipation.
"He always seems to know where I am going to hit the ball," Rungkat told reporters last year. "I don't think he is guessing; it is more like he is reading my mind."
Striving to be the best
Reaching a No. 1 world ranking is Lee's goal, but first he aspires to become the best player in South Korean history, which would mean passing the career high of Lee Hyung-taik, who reached No. 36 in 2007 and won one ATP singles title.
Tennis lags behind sports like baseball and soccer in popularity in Asia, and South Korea does not host an ATP event. But with Lee Duck-hee and another talented young player, 104th-ranked Chung Hyeon, 20, the Korean Tennis Association hopes the country's Davis Cup team can rise back into the World Group, from which it was relegated in 2008.
Under new leadership, the association hopes that newly secured funding will help players like Lee and Chung, as well as develop juniors by paying for travel to warmer climates during winter months.
Lee doesn't believe that his hearing impairment will hold him back — "It doesn't really matter," he said — but he acknowledged that another physical disadvantage might: At 5 feet 9, he is a shrub amid the redwoods of professional men's tennis. In an era of increasingly physical competition, only one player in the ATP top 50, 21st ranked David Ferrer, is as short as Lee. Only six players are under 6 feet.
Lee travels with Woo, who serves as a hitting partner and speaks limited English, as he navigates his first laps on the circuit. Woo said that although Lee might sometimes feel intimidated by being one of the youngest on tour, he keeps an unrelentingly positive attitude, and is comfortable interacting with other players socially.
While Lee can compete without much issue on court, save for sometimes not noticing out or let calls, other tour regulations may prove challenging. All players are required to participate in news conferences after each match, if requested by the news media.
While he is effusive in nonverbal communications across linguistic boundaries, formal interviews can be burdensome for Lee because he must read an interpreter's lips, and his own speech is often not readily understood. When Lee was interviewed by a Korean television station after a match at the National Sports Festival, the station used subtitles.
There can also be benefits to Lee's unique situation, however.
"Of course I do want my player to be treated as a normal player, but we have some opportunities and some advantages from being deaf, business-wise," said Lee Dong-yeop, his agent. "Because no one has done this before."
One of the first boosts came from the Korean car manufacturer Hyundai, which began sponsoring Lee Duck-hee when he was 13 and recently renewed its support through 2020. In a statement, Hyundai said that it was "astonished and inspired by his relentless spirit to reach the top as a tennis player despite his handicap of being deaf," and that the company "felt the responsibility to give him support as a responsible company in the Korean society."
Funding from Hyundai has given Lee a stable financial base that few developing players enjoy. His agent hoped that increased funds, from prize money and additional sponsorships, might someday allow Lee to travel with a full-time manager and translator.
"Money can solve that kind of problem," he said.
Starting today, Lee will compete with other Asian players in Zhuhai, China, for a regional wild card into the Australian Open. If he does not win that event, he would have another chance to reach his first Grand Slam main draw by winning three matches in the qualifying rounds in Melbourne. With continued success at the Challenger level, his ranking may steadily climb into the Top 100, which would allow him to enter main draws at Grand Slam events directly.
Stringer said she believed that there was no reason deaf athletes should be less common in the elite levels of tennis than they are in the general population.
"To reach the top of any sport is limited to a very select group of talented athletes," she said. "So it's a percentages thing. The odds are that more people with normal hearing will be in the Top 150 than those with deafness. I bet Lee Duck-hee's success has to do with his athletic talents, personality, intelligence, work ethic, opportunities, and the support group he has around him; his deafness is less of a factor than those attributes."