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Lost In Translation: Korea's Loneliest Athlete

US Open 2007

Hyung-Taik Lee© Getty ImagesLife can be lonely for the only Korean in the Top 100, Hyung-Taik Lee.

Hyung-Taik Lee could be considered an anomaly in the world of tennis, an unlikely athlete emerging from a country with little history in the sport.

The son of a potato farmer, Lee was unaware that the ATP circuit even existed while growing up in the South Korean countryside. He picked up tennis at the age of nine, partially because he liked the look of the fuzzy yellow balls and partially because he wasn't much of a student. He held onto his improbable dream of becoming a professional tennis player, driven by advice from his elders. "I would often hear them expressing their regrets, that if they had only continued tennis, they could've become something," says Lee.

His former coach likened it to "almost [a] miracle" that South Korea should have a player like Lee after the unknown qualifier stunned former World No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero to claim the Sydney title in 2003, prompting one journalist to quip, "So he's a freak, in other words?"

Coach June-Choi Hee laughed and replied: "We say in Korea it's like a plant in a dry desert type of thing."

Lee assumed the crown of Asia's No. 1 ATP player last autumn, but in his home country he is still considered a rarity of sorts. He has been referred to as its loneliest athlete with other Korean tennis players - male or female - yet to make any significant strides in the sport.

It's an adjective that might arguably extend to Lee's status on the ATP circuit. Considering that Lee adamantly attests that he speaks only Korean - "English is too hard, and I never liked to study," he says - communication with a majority of players, staff and fans would seem an impossible hurdle.

Whereas numerous Spanish speakers can easily get by without a comfortable command of the English language, Lee's situation is made a bit trickier with only one other ethnic Korean on the tour: American-born Kevin Kim, whom the elder Lee tries to make speak in his mother tongue when they occasionally team up in doubles or go out to eat.

The language issue came to the forefront when Lee burst onto the international radar as a 24-year-old qualifier playing at the 2000 US Open. Lee, the first Korean to win a Grand Slam match, made a fairy tale run to the fourth round, a center court match that featured one of his idols, Pete Sampras, across the net. In preparation, Lee placed an urgent call to his coach in Seoul, who helped him come up with a speech that Lee could deliver in English should the need arise.

He didn't get the chance to use the speech on that particular occasion, but three years later in Sydney when he became the first Korean in history to capture an ATP title, he stood before the throngs of Aussies and spoke the words he had diligently memorized.

Earlier this year, Lee parted ways with his long-time, English-speaking coach as he enlisted the services of old doubles partner and good friend Yong-il Yoon, a move that reflected that Lee is more comfortable with English than he lets on – enough to make his way around the world as he goes through airports, hotels, customs.

Despite being the sole representative from South Korea, Lee considers himself far from the loneliest player on the tour. He has forged a strong bond with other East Asians players. "We are good friends and we help each other out," he says. When pressed on how he communicates with them, Lee smiles sheepishly and says "English," then "Konglish." And finally, adds with a laugh, "Body Language."

Lee's dream is to see more Asians - not just those from his home country - break onto the tour, but acknowledges that the conditions are far from ideal despite the sport's recreational boom: "Now more Asians are playing so it's becoming better, but it's a hard sport for Asian players to begin. There aren't many tournaments in Asia, the travel is difficult, and there is not much support."

Other than mainstays Lee and former Asian No. 1 Paradorn Srichaphan, the only other East Asian players who occasionally dip in and out of the Top 100 are Thailand's Danai Udomchoke and Chinese Taipei's Yen-Hsun Lu and Yeu-Tzuoo Wang.

"When Paradorn was doing well for a long time, as an Asian, I was proud and there was a sense that if I did my best, then I could do it too," says Lee, who now serves as similar inspiration for other up-and-coming Asian players.

At 31 years of age, the unassuming and patient journeyman is playing the best tennis of his career as he continues to establish new records for Korea and make his way up the South African Airways ATP rankings – he broke into the Top 40 for the first time this past summer following his quarterfinal comeback over former World No. 1 Marat Safin in Los Angeles.

Lee admits that he used to stress over winning each match, but with his years of experience, he has come to approach tennis and life on the tour with a healthier perspective.

"My mind is much more comfortable now," says Lee, who welcomed his second child and first son on the eve of the US Open. "I know if I don't do well, my ranking can fall a lot, but if I drop points, I can always get them back next year. Before I was only going from the tournament to the hotel to restaurants. Now as I travel, I'm meeting with friends here and there, and am enjoying the time."

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