WATCH: Duckhee Lee—Silence & Strength

There was no shortage of compelling champions this past weekend, and this week's slate is loaded on both tours. So casual and diehard fans alike could be forgiven if they weren't paying attention to the M15 Sharm ElSheikh tournament in Sharm ElSheikh, Egypt. But the lower-level ITF event may have boasted the most compelling champion of all, so much so that we have to talk about it days later.

The title went to Duckhee Lee, less known for his career achievements—currently 426th in the ATP rankings, with a career-high rank of No. 130 and a 3-3 record in tour-level matches—than his disability: Lee is deaf.

He relies on his eye sight and anticipation skills on the court to compensate, and has more than succeeded in doing so.

“Because I’ve never heard before, I can’t imagine how I would play if I could,” Lee told Tennis Magazine. “Deafness is a part of my tennis life. It sometimes gives me disadvantages, but it has never discouraged me.”

Doctors diagnosed Lee as deaf when his mother brought him in for testing as a toddler. As he grew up, his parents, Park Mi-ja and Lee Sang-jin, taught their firstborn son to read lips instead of teaching him sign language. They withdrew him from his school for the deaf around the time he started grade school in an effort to fully immerse him in the hearing world.

When they considered athletic options for Lee, his parents quickly crossed team sports off the list—communication would be too difficult. Tennis seemed like an option not only for its individual nature, but also for its professional possibilities. The inability to hear and speak clearly limited Lee’s longterm job prospects in his native South Korea. If he had athletic talent, tennis could become his livelihood.

“It was really fun, and also the first time that I became so competitive that I did not want to lose to anyone,” Lee said, recounting his first tennis experience as a 7-year-old. “Since that day, I feel really happy and excited when I step on the court. When I grab the racquet, I feel confident.”


South Korea's Duckhee Lee was born deaf—and with some big-time talent

South Korea's Duckhee Lee was born deaf—and with some big-time talent

It wasn’t long before Lee was dominating the South Korean junior tennis circuit. Even as he rose to No. 3 in the world in the ITF junior rankings, some coaches and contemporaries doubted he could succeed in the pros without the help of auditory cues. Hearing the ball contact the opponent’s strings can enhance reaction time, trigger a split step and inform the kind of spin at play.

Slowly and steadily, Lee has proven his doubters wrong. He played his first event on the ITF Pro Circuit when he was 14. He’s experienced success on the ATP Challenger Tour, notching wins over established players like Vasek Pospisil, Dudi Sela and Lukas Rosol. In 2019, at the Winston-Salem Open, Lee became the first deaf player to win an ATP main-draw match.

“I’ve been confident in myself since I decided to be a tennis player,” says Lee, who has reached the final rounds of qualifying at the Australian Open (2017 and 2018) and Roland Garros (2018).

But for the fans he sees cheering him on from the stands, he has one request: “I hope that they recognize me as just the player Duckhee Lee, rather than a player with a hearing problem.”

With his ITF title in Egypt, along with everything else he has accomplished, Lee is doing just that.