LOS ANGELES • Lee Duck-hee 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 does not 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 (7-4), 6-1 in the first round of the Winston-Salem Open on Monday, earning a match-up with No. 3 seed Hubert Hurkacz of Poland.
Their match was played early this morning (Singapore time).
As much as the first-round victory meant to Lee and his career, it might have meant 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.
Lee makes up for it with his eyes, sharpening his focus on his opponent's swing, how a player makes contact and the speed and spin of the ball as it is racing toward him.
He also does not speak English, and reads lips instead of using sign language, relying on hand gestures from umpires making calls.
Because he cannot hear score announcements, he keeps track of points and games in his head - a feat more difficult in smaller events without 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.
Lee's debut in Winston-Salem marked his next step up the tennis ladder. He started playing at age seven - the year after he realised he was deaf, though doctors had diagnosed his condition as a toddler.
He made his debut on the International Tennis Federation Futures Tour at 14 and won eight titles before turning 18, and reached three finals of the ATP Challenger Tour.
"People made fun of me because of the disability and said I shouldn't be playing," Lee said.
"My message for people who are hearing-impaired is to not be discouraged. I thought that I was just going to do my best and try to stay focused, but I came out a winner."
Meanwhile, former world No. 1 Andy Murray's wait for a first singles win since returning from injury continued with a 7-6 (10-8), 7-5 defeat by Tennys Sandgren.
The 32-year-old was making his second singles appearance since a career-saving hip surgery following the Australian Open in January.
ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, DPA