[OUTLOOK]Winning Is Not Always About Winning

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[OUTLOOK]Winning Is Not Always About Winning

While walking through Namsan Park not long ago, I stopped to watch two boys swat a scraggly tennis ball back and forth. Using dime-store rackets, they were playing on a patch of concrete that had no net or lines. None of this seemed to matter. Happily, now and then the pair shouted to each other a word that sounded like "lunatic." When I paused to listen closely, I discovered they actually were saying "Lee Hyung-taik!"

For Korean athletes competing on U.S. soil, this has been a year of heroes. Lee Bong-ju staggered across the finish line first in the Boston Marathon. Major league baseball anointed Park Chan-ho with all-galaxy status. Pak Se-ri won a bunch of golf tournaments and showed she really did know how to smile.

That day at Namsan Park was the first I had heard of Lee Hyung-taik in a long time; he had quickly dropped out of sight after popping up a year ago to knock the tennis world on its mostly white, well-starched rear end.

One Saturday afternoon last September, I turned on a television set in my home in the United States to watch the U.S. Open tennis tournament. Following the U.S. Open has been a ritual for me ever since I covered the event as a reporter in the 1970s. Show-offy, celebrity-mobbed, over-priced and often crude, the U.S. Open, which begins late this month in New York, is tennis' biggest, richest and wackiest spectacle.

When I tuned in a year ago, the tournament's first week was about to conclude with a Pete Sampras match. Two months before, at Wimbledon, Mr. Sampras had won a record 13th Grand Slam tournament. The No. 1-ranked player in the world, he had hoisted the U.S. Open men's singles trophy four times in his career.

For his fourth-round match that day, Mr. Sampras, I learned, would face Lee Hyung-taik of Korea. I had never been to Korea and even though I paid attention to tennis, Mr. Lee's name meant nothing to me. And why should it have? He wasn't ranked in the top-100. That week, however, Mr. Lee had been tearing up the U.S. Open. He had beaten three quality players in a row to reach his match with Mr. Sampras. And the week before, Mr. Lee had defeated five players to capture a qualifying tournament in the Bronx, New York, which gave him a ticket to the Open. I watched, fascinated, as a stoic, fleet-of-foot 24-year-old in a white cap got ready to meet perhaps the best tennis player ever. No Korean, the TV announcer said, had ever gone beyond the first round in a major tournament. No Korean had ever made any mark in pro tennis. That's not surprising since tennis in Korea has no tradition, certainly none like marathoning, baseball or golf.

In a country that has an estimated one tennis court for every 4,500 inhabitants, the sport has a way to go here before it passes taekwando in popularity. What's more, Lee Hyung-taik is not from Seoul, as one might think an international tennis player would be, but from Hoengseong, a potato-growing village tucked away in Kangwon province. That's sort of like a deep-sea fisherman being from the Kalahari desert.

No one could have invented a more intriguing sports story.

Of course, this story would have been much more intriguing if Mr. Lee had defeated Pete Sampras. Lee Hyung-taik lost in straight sets, though they were close sets. After the match, which had been televised live back in Korea, the raucous New York fans gave the unknown player from the faraway country a standing ovation. At a post-match news conference, Mr. Lee, who spoke almost no English, told reporters through a translator that to save money he was staying in New York with a Korean friend, a man who ran a dry cleaning shop.

For his efforts at the U.S. Open, Mr. Lee earned $55,000. He could now afford a hotel room - even in New York City. But the following months were not kind to Mr. Lee. Struggling with his confidence, he lost in the first round at the Olympics, the Australian Open and Wimbledon.

When an unheralded athlete experiences a moment of glory, then falls back into the pack again, impatient fans drift away. Weary sportswriters trot out bromides, such as "flash in the pan." Professional sports can be fun, but they also can be as cruel as a canceled Christmas.

The great part of Mr. Lee's story, however, is that he'll be remembered for bringing tennis to Korea, and he showed Koreans that anyone can achieve almost anything, even coming from the most unlikely of backgrounds.

The two boys banging about that scruffy ball at Namsan Park surely understood this concept. That Lee Hyung-taik hadn't won a significant match in almost a year did not seem to faze them. That Mr. Lee might never win another significant match probably hadn't entered their minds, either. What mattered most was this: They had a hero.


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The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by Toby Smith

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