Lee Jae-ah inherited her dad’s sporty streak

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Lee Jae-ah inherited her dad’s sporty streak


Tennis player Lee Jae-ah, left, and her professional football player father Lee Dong-gook talk to each other during an interview in Songdo, Incheon, on March 20. [OH JONG-TAEK]

Lee Dong-gook of Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors is no stranger to a bit of media attention. As the K League’s oldest player, Lee’s often in the headlines. But not normally because of his 11-year-old daughter’s sporting achievements.

Lee Jae-ah is the second oldest of Lee Dong-gook’s five children. Since she was 7, Jae-ah has been playing tennis and is now a competitive tennis player in her age group. She first made headlines because she was Dong-gook’s sporty daughter, but now her performance on the court is becoming news in its own right.

In February, Jae-ah won a regional U12 Level 4 United States Tennis Association (USTA) event in Irvine, California. USTA has seven different levels of competition, and the lower the number, the tougher the competition. Level 7 is entry-level.

Aside from the international event, Jae-ah has already been a solid player in her age division in Korea, as she won the U10 national championship twice in 2016.

Like Jae-ah, Dong-gook, is having a strong season this year as well.

At 39-years-old, he is Jeonbuk’s captain and is proving that he wasn’t given that title just because he’s old. During Jeonbuk’s Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Champions League match against Beijing Guoan, Dong-gook scored a goal and picked up an assist to help Jeonbuk to a 3-1 victory.

Then, Dong-gook finally scored his first K League goal of the season on Tuesday, during a match against Gyeongnam FC.
The following are edited excerpts from an interview the pair had with the JoongAng Ilbo.


A photo of Lee Dong-gook, center, and his five children. [LEE DONG-GOOK]

Q. You’ve recently won a tournament under USTA. How did you feel when you won?

: Whenever and wherever I win, it makes me feel like I won the world. Dad complimented me and [my youngest brother] gave me a kiss.

Dong-gook: When Jae-ah first started playing tennis, she said “I’m going to lift more trophies than dad.” She’s stacking them up one at a time. I’m proud of her because it looks like she’s getting rewarded for the time that she sweated.

How did you start playing tennis?

: When I first hit the ball, I liked the feeling, the sound and the way it left [the racket]. Right at that moment, I thought I was born to play tennis.

Dong-gook: You thought of that when you were 7? She said she was into tennis so there was no reason for me to stop her.

What was the hardest point in your tennis career?

: In third grade, my elbow started hurting. I cried every day but just kept on playing. I found out that 80 percent of the growth plate in my elbow was damaged.

Dong-gook: Since we were told by the hospital that she can get seriously injured, she rested and got better. I was hurt, but I told her that athletes should know how to bear the pain.

Jae-ah also has an aggressive playing style, just like Dong-gook. Do you enjoy playing aggressively?

: I like the aggressive style of play. But now, I mix up the style by trying to play defensively and lead my opponent to make a mistake.

Dong-gook: You were really ignorantly just hitting the ball until the elbow injury happened. You just needed to target the corner of the court.

Have you guys ever had a father-daughter tennis match?

: Dad is athletic so he manages to get it over the net despite his weird form. But I found his weakness recently so I won 6-1, 6-4.

Dong-gook: Why don’t you talk about the time you lost? Before, when I made it a mental game, she just couldn’t control it and fell apart. But now, she can control it. Tennis is an individual sport so they have to get over it themselves. She lowered her number of errors.

Jae-ah, you’ve had quite a lot of come-from-behind victories. How do you do that?

: It’s thrilling when we watch a come-from-behind victory in football. I get a lot more excited when I pick up a come-from-behind victory because it feels like I’m getting rewarded twice as much as a regular win.

Dong-gook: So you’ve been picking up come-from-behind victories for the people watching you? You’re almost like a professional, thinking of the crowd. But you really don’t think about your mom getting worried? But regardless of a win or a loss, it’s a blessing to do something that you enjoy during your childhood.

Just like Maria Sharapova, you also shout when you hit the ball. Why do you do that?

: It’s a way of setting a rhythm when I play tennis. When I hit a winning shot, I just unconsciously shout “come on.” I used to really like Serena Williams but now I really like Naomi Osaka. She won the Australian Open in January. I’ll think of that time when I play against Osaka sometime in the future.

Dong-gook: If you picture it, it’ll happen. When I watched Rade Bogdanovic play for the Pohang Steelers, I always thought: “that’s where I belong.” And all of a sudden, I was there.

Dong-gook is 39-years-old. He’s Jeonbuk’s captain and is playing just as well as the others. How do you feel about that?

: At home, he jokes around but when he’s on the pitch, he’s amazing. He looks different. When you get older, you get weaker physically. He’s just amazing.

Dong-gook: Age doesn’t matter in sports. Jae-ah, you can beat Osaka someday.

When you injured your ankle, I heard that your dad showed you his feet, covered in blisters. What were your thoughts when you saw his feet?

: I think he is very strong. He’s missing two of three ligaments, but he’s still playing. My pain is nothing compared to his.

Dong-gook: When you get a blister, you need to pop it with a needle about 100 times until it becomes a callus. Jae-si [Jae-ah’s twin sister] is more athletic, but Jae-ah’s strength is that she doesn’t give up and works really hard.

Does Jae-ah have a sponsor right now? How is she competing and traveling throughout the season?

: Right now, she’s getting individual lessons and competes in tournaments at our own expense. Tennis player Chung Hyeon received sponsorship from when he was little, but right now, Jae-ah is sponsored by Si-an.

(Jae-ah’s youngest brother Si-an appeared in multiple commercials when he was a baby, so the family jokes that he sponsors Jae-ah with that money.)

When your dad scored a goal during Korea’s friendly match against Costa Rica in September 2014, he celebrated by miming hitting a tennis ball. Did you watch it? How did you feel?

Jae-ah: I missed it because I was so excited when he scored and started jumping around. I didn’t think that he would actually do it so I was really touched. I watched the ceremony later on television and his pose was funny.

What’s your goal Jae-ah?

: I want to win and perform a volley shoot celebration. I’m going to run up and show off, saying I did it.

Dong-gook: You can’t do that at a small tournament.

Jae-ah: I’ll do it at Wimbledon.

Dong-gook: Oh, then I’ll never get to see it.

BY PARK RIN [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]
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