Hyung-Taik Lee , the pride of Hoingsung, a potato-farming village in the South Korean province of Kang Won Do, is on a roll again. This happens perioidically - like once every six years. You may remember Lee from 2000, when he vaulted from the Bronx Challenger, which is kind of like a tennis tournament, only smaller, into the qualifying for the US Open and then onto the BIg Stage at Flushing Meadow, going all the way to the fourth round, where it took the likes of Pete Sampras to say, "No Can Do" to the man from Kang Won Do.
If I were any more sensitive, I probably wouldn't say this, but this guy has jumped over more obstacles in his time than Jackie Chan, and while that Chan dude wasn't Korean, he also wasn't a Kung Fu fighter at all - his discipline was the Korean martial art, hapkido. So that's my connection. Don't say I never gave you a cocktail party conversation starter, okay?
Anyway, Lee is 31 and riding his career-highest ranking, attained earlier this month (36). This guy is really remarkable. His best performance, that run in 2000, was his Grand Slam debut, and he was over 24 at the time. Since then, he's hung in there, mostly inside the the Top 100. He posted his best year-end ranking in 2006, finishing No. 49. I'm telling you, when this dude turns 50, he's a lock for the Top 10!
As this site likes to promote international brotherhood, peace and good will among men, I thought I would catch up with Hyung-Taik again, his three-set win over Willie Canas having rekindled fond memories of that run in 2000. If memory serves, at that time Hyung-Taik spent most of his down time locally in Queens, with Korean friends. In his pressers back then, he was all smiles and nods and I think all the time he was thinking, in Korean, Who the hail are these folks and what exactly is it that they want from me? So I thought it would be nice to catch up with Hyung-Taik, to plumb the secrets of his longevity and siss put what he might have learned, besides English, in five years on the pro tour.
I should have known something was wrong when the original announcement, that Lee would be available in interview Room No. 2, at 4 PM, was changed. It was updated, and here's the precise language used around here, in case you're interested: "his is a press announcement. Lee will be in Room No. 3 at 3:45. . . Lee, Room 3, 3:45. Bear in mind that Room 1 is the main, large interview room, and 2 and 3 are, respectively, smaller. Tom Perrotta, who sits just a few cubicles over, and who also wanted to talk with Lee, looked at me, and we shrugged.
Ten minutes after that came another announcement: This is a press announcement. Lee, who was scheduled to be in room No. 3 at 3:45, will be outside Room 3 at 3:30. Lee. Outside Room 3, 3:30. . . meaning Lee was being bumped down the ladder, to make way for bigger name players.
What next, we wondered: Lee, in the Hall-of-Science parking lot, half an hour ago?
Well, "Outside Room 3" is as far down as they pushed Lee - after all, he had just busted through to the third round of the tournament, going through big, bad, Willie Canas. Tom and I hustled over to Room 3, which shares a separate bay in the main hallway in Ashe stadium with Room 2, and the scene there was chaotic. A bunch of British reporters wanted to know how Lee was going to play Andy Murray, his next opponent. A couple of Japanese videographers, punked out in the obligatory manner, wanted some footage. A few curious Italian press pariahs were sticking in their noses.
"So Hyung-Taik, how do you plan to attack Andy's inside-out forehand set-up shot," someone asked.
The translator looked like he was going to throw up. He spoke to Hyung-Taik, who was the coolest and most composed person in the lot, with his ultra-cool hair (Novak Djokovic is at least part Korean, if the hair is any indication) and Hyung-Taik talked to the translator and the answer to the question was something like: Hyung-Taik likes pina coladas, walks in the rain, and any movie with Don Knotts in it. I can't confirm that with any authority, because part of the charm in this whole scenario was that the translator himself spoke incomprehensible English, and there's probably a Samuel Beckett play in that .
But I chose the word "charm" consciously and carefully, for that was the outstanding feature of this interlude. Sometimes, this entire one-sport, one-world thing is a drag. The tour is awash with players from distant lands who speak perfect English (what do you think they teach at that Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, the slice backhand?) and have met Gavin Rossdale. Gah! Give me a tennis pro like Lee, who has played Grand Slam events for seven years and still can't speak a word of English (much less download email from his cell phone to his ipod), any day. What's wrong with having a little mystery in the world? There's a purity about that, even though it's probably insane, policy-wise, for a player to insist on traveling in the slow lane on the information highway.
Of course, the down side was that there was absolutely no way for me to satisfy my interest in Lee's comings and goings, and his state of mind. You sort of need to speak the same language, or at least some common one, to know how a guy feels about making the third-round of the US Open. The "interview", if that's the right word, was a 20-minute excercise in communication futility, accompanied by a lot of wild hand gestures and verbal contortions, at the end of which I learned three things: Hyung-Taik is playing the best tennis of his life because he is playing to enjoy the game, not necessarily to win; he is staying in New York City, at the official player hotel, the Parker-Meridien; he feels pretty good about his chances against Andy Murray (and well he should; in their last meeting, in San Jose, Murray won 7-6 in the third) but isn't making any predictions one way or another.
Hyung-Taik seemed to be enjoying the minor brouhaha he was causing, and one of his companions was documenting the entire "outside Room 3" presser on his digital camera. Hyung-Taik, dressed in a neat, baby-blue Adidas three-quarter zip top, looked relaxed and happy. He laughed and smiled frequently as he answered all our questions, even though some guy was holding a sound boom over his head and blasting him with the glare of a shoulder-held camera. The man from Kang Won Do took it all in stride; he seemed to be doing just fine without using our words.