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By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, Sept. 27 (Yonhap) -- After overcoming nagging knee problems earlier this year, Rafael Nadal, the No. 2-ranked male tennis star, found an unlikely source of inspiration: a South Korean junior player.
In Seoul for a corporate promotional tour on Friday, Nadal, the 13-time Grand Slam singles champ, spoke highly of Lee Duck-hee, a 15-year-old junior player with a hearing impairment.
"When I first heard about a deaf player, I couldn't believe it," Nadal said through an interpreter at a press conference conducted in his native Spanish. "In tennis, the inability to hear can be a major handicap. I would like to praise him for staying on the right path with his strong determination and mental toughness."
This was Nadals' first visit to South Korea since November 2006, when he played an exhibition match against Roger Federer.
Nadal's admiration for Lee, the world's 26th-ranked junior, was first made public in April this year. After the South Korean earned his first ATP ranking point, Nadal shared his thoughts with his nearly 5 million followers on Twitter, writing, "(An) overcoming story of #DuckHeeLee teaches us that we must fight!"
"Playing tennis is about overcoming challenges and adversities," Nadal said Friday. "I felt Lee's story could be inspirational not only for children and junior players, but also for professional tour players. That's why I became interested in his career."
Before the press conference, Nadal and Lee exchanged ground strokes for several minutes in a clinic session. The Spaniard praised Lee's "quick and easy movements" on the court, and told him to keep working hard and to enjoy the competition.
"I would like to stay in touch with him and meet him at junior events during Grand Slams, such as the Australian Open or the French Open," Nadal said. "I am sure he has a lot of people helping him out, but I would also be willing to share my own experiences with him."
Nadal also noted that Lee seemed to be having more fun on the court than he himself did at 15, and that he hoped to see the young South Korean on the ATP Tour someday.
"You can't be a champion by yourself," Nadal said. "You have to receive help from people around you and combine that with your own drive and determination. I hope Lee can develop into a champion with the kind of passion, work ethic and humility that he has today."
Dubbed the "King of Clay" for his dominance on that surface, Nadal has won the French Open -- the only major played on clay -- a record eight times.
He added two Grand Slam titles this year at the French Open and the U.S. Open to get to 13 for his career. He said the 2013 season has been "the most unforgettable season" of his career.
Nadal is ranked third behind Federer with 17 Grand Slam wins and Pete Sampras with 14. Nadal is the first player to win at least one Grand Slam title in nine consecutive years.
At 27, Nadal, his recent knee problems notwithstanding, is in the prime of his career. With Federer clearly on the downhill of his career -- the 32-year-old Swiss failed to reach the final in any of the four Grand Slams this year and has pulled in just one major title in his last 12 appearances -- Nadal could very well surpass Federer's mark in the near future.
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