After almost 10 years of serious play--during which she represented South Korea in the Asian Championships--He-ja Lee came to the U.S. as the wife of 6-time U.S. Champion Dal-Joon Lee. In those days, like her arch-rival, Insook Na Bhushan, He-ja was based in Columbus, Ohio, where of course she practiced with D-J, while Insook practiced with former U.S. #2 John Tannehill.
That fall of 1976, He-ja no doubt had some adjustments to make to life in the U.S., and perhaps she was more than a little nervous in her first big North American tournament, the Toronto CNE. In a jittery -19, -20, 12, 16, -19 match, she outscored but lost to Rupa Banerjee, a former member of the Indian National Team, who'd immigrated to Canada.
Afterwards, at the USOTC's, He-ja avenged her loss to Banerjee, but barely got by Alice Green Sonne, 19-in-the-3rd, and did lose to Connie Sweeris.
Perhaps then it was a surprise that, just a few weeks later, in Las Vegas, He-ja would win her first U.S. Closed? Not really. She'd gone 5 with Insook in the Columbus Summer Open, and then, before the National's, had been the first player to defeat Insook in this country when--push, push, push, crack--she'd won the $300 Chicago Channel 11 Invitational from her.
Though Insook would blank He-ja at the '77 Eastern's, at that first Caesars Palace tournament in Dec. of '76, she apparently couldn't convince herself to try to break up He-ja's attack strategy. That Insook wasn't more offense-minded was surprising in view not only of the very bad lighting but also the pattern of the carpet underneath. Yes, we played on carpet that first year at Caesars--a carpet that the ball, when you went to chop it, momentarily disappeared into.
Though Insook and He-ja won the Women's Doubles in that '76 Closed, they never paired together in the Closed again, perhaps because their rivalry was intense, or perhaps because discouragingly to others they'd be too much of a lock to win. Both had considerable success with other partners--Insook with Diana Gee and He-ja with Angelita Rosal Sistrunk. He-ja would also reach three Closed Mixed finals with husband D-J.
Though she had her Green Card, He-ja was not yet in a position to play for the U.S. at the '77 World's. But she and D-J did go to the Birmingham, England matches, and afterwards they stopped at Budapest to train with some of Hungary's best players--Gergely, for one. Then they went on to Germany, to Dusseldorf, where He-ja was given the chance to practice with Jochen Leiss of the German National Team. (Several years later, in Germany, Leiss would coach Scott Boggan to improve his flat-hit forehand and so help him to come back to the U.S. and win the '81 National's.)
"How many points does D-J give you?" Leiss asked He-ja. And when she answered "5," he started her off with 5 against him. After all that practicing against the Hungarians, He-ja was blocking and smashing the ball well, even attacking the German's strong loops. And at first Leiss was saying somewhat patronizingly, "Good!...Good!" Meanwhile, every time He-ja made a point by smacking the ball through, the other German National Team Members watching were laughing. Finally...the crowning humiliation: He-ja won. But Leiss was gracious--he pronounced her Bundesliga material. Yep, she could play--and she was 25 years old, pretty and shapely.
Leiss won the Men's Singles in the Bobby Gusikoff-run U.S. Open that summer of '77, but He-ja lost in the 8th's of the Women's to Japan's Kayo Kawahigashi.
However, at the Benson and Hedges tournament in Kingston, Jamaica, played in tandem with the U.S. Open, He-ja, though losing in the Singles to England's Carole Knight, won both the Women's Doubles with Insook and the Mixed with Leiss.
Then it was off to Germany, where it was decided He-ja would be playing for Kiel, the youngest (and prettiest) Women's Team in the Second Division--Second Division because it had been too late for He-ja to negotiate to get on a First Division team.
In both the Swedish and French Open, He-ja lost to France's much improved Claude Bergeret, the '77 World Mixed Doubles Champion with Jacques Secretin. And in the U.S. Closed she was beaten in straight games in the final (the last two at deuce) by Insook.
Back in Germany for her (and D-J's) second-half season of Bundesliga play, He-ja had a winning streak of 38 straight matches. As a winner, and as an attractive Asian penholder, she was an unusual and much-appreciated drawing card for her German audience.
That winter He-ja and D-J lived in a summer house. They had to burn coal to try to stay warm, and, since they didn't have a car, time and again they had to wait out in the cold for a bus. Another discomfort to He-ja was D-J's Team Captain who routinely drove him to matches at over 100 mph. Perhaps it was he who told D-J that he liked to drive faster when he was sleepy. Why? Because then, he said, he knew he wouldn't fall asleep.
At the 1978 Closed, He-ja again lost to Insook. This despite a good flat kill shot, and despite D-J's helpful advice--he was coaching her with hand motions and taking notes during her play, as well as drawing diagrams for her in between games. But in Insook's absence from Vegas in '79 and '80 (she and husband Shekhar had started a family) He-ja regained her Closed Women's Singles title by defeating Faan Yeen Liu in the '79 final.
During the 1978-'79 season He-ja played in the First Division of the Bundesliga. Here she had a win over Jill Shirley Hammersley (later Parker), who afterwards, in addition to being European Champion, would Captain the English Women's Team to the World's.
In 1979, He-ja was on the U.S. Team to the Pyongyang, North Korea World's. In Corbillon Cup play against the Czechs, she had a fine win against Uhlikova, who'd earlier beaten the North Korean World Champion Pak Yung Sun, but then lost a real downer to Dubinova, 25-23 in the last game of the fifth and final match of the tie.
Vacationing in Peking before coming home, those in the USTTA contingent visiting the Emperor's Summer Palace, bowed before the newest of dynastic rulers. For, against his wife's advice, former U.S. Champion D-J Lee (reigned 1968-73) had put on 10 yuans-worth of rented robes and a crown, and had then sat, arms folded in the inscrutable pose of an Emperor, for those players and officials whose elevated cameras would pay him (and of course his adoring wife He-ja not exactly hidden behind him) befitting homage.
By the time the '80 U.S. Closed came around, He-ja had given birth to a 3-month old daughter, Mira Janet, and had just resumed playing. In the semi's, she was forced into the 5th by Carol Davidson, then beat Judy Bochenski Hoarfrost in straight games in the final.
For the 1981 Closed, Insook, who hadn't played competitively since the '79 World's, was back with toddler Austin, had gone to the USOTC's over Thanksgiving and had won the MVP Award there. She beat He-ja in 5 in this National's, after which He-ja retired. Two years later she and D-J had another daughter, Yoon-Young Monica.
In six years of play then, He-ja, like her husband D-J, had been in six straight U.S. Singles finals--six, not seven, and, unlike D-J, had won only three. Was she not then a wife fit for a proud Asian Emperor? And from that family perspective, was it not also fitting that, more than a dozen years later at our Hall's Induction ceremony, this modest, retiring Champion asked that her oldest daughter, Mira Janet, accept the Award for her?