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For Deaf Tennis Player, Sound Is No Barrier

WATCH: Lee Duck-hee, 18, of South Korea, is ranked 143rd in the world in a sport in which hearing the ball is considered crucial.

ASAN, South Korea -- To improve its chances in the boys’ team tennis event at the National Sports Festival here, 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 beside along the dusty hardcourts and chanted in support while Lee, 18, crushed forehand winners past his bespectacled opponent in the final. The 6-1, 6-1 win took little time - no surprise, as 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.

Lee is exceptional among professionals, too. He is Deaf, and no Deaf player in the sport’s history 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 powerful serves and groundstrokes mean that every tiny fraction of a second matters.

Wimbledon's Rob Walker takes a look at Duck Hee Lee. Video Credit: Wimbledon

“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 United States 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, the tennis coach at Mapo High School, said he was skeptical of Lee’s potential at first.

“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 not fully broken through. 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... Read The Full Story - New York Times.
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