Torben Ulrich –The Life and Times Of Tennis’ Most Imaginative Man

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Bill Simons

His beard was wispy, his mindset was whimsical, his wisdom refreshed.

When tennis’ philosopher king, Torben Ulrich, was asked to reflect on a butterfly that had fluttered by him during a Forest Hills match, he replied, “Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming that I am a man?”

As a teen, the left-handed, half-Jewish Dane took a boat to Sweden to flee the Nazis, but ended up in a concentration camp.

Incredibly, he was deemed not to be Jewish enough and was released after just two weeks. The Copenhagen kid would soon go on to play on the circuit from the 1940s to late into the 1970s. He reached the fourth round of the US Open four times, twice won the Antwerp International, captured a senior Wimbledon title, and, most of all, played in 102 Davis Cup matches, the last at age 48. Ulrich died on December 20 at the age of 95.

The man who competed from Marrakesh to Calcutta came to live in Seattle and then Tiburon, California, where fans at Mill Valley’s Club at Harbor Point still recall being enthralled by his captivating play at the Esurance Classic. Never mind that there was a hint of gray in his beard – with Torben’s sublime touch he could make a ball stand still – or so it seemed.

In a sport that often adores its far-out characters, Ulrich was the farthest out.

He was known for his random angles, and, not unlike Jim Courier, he’d take off on “purification runs.” He rode his bike to the French Open and he’d practice his sax in a phone booth at Wimbledon. When he lost a match he’d explain, “I couldn’t find my song today.” 

Winning or losing didn’t really matter. He said, “It’s just an announcement.” Tennis’ most captivating Bohemian would warm up by skipping rope while listening to blues, and now and then could be spotted after midnight at the far edges of dim bars on the seedy side of Macao.

Clearly, Torben danced to the beat of a different drummer. Not at all coincidentally, the man who loved the  percussive beauty of tennis strokes was the father of Metallica’s famous drummer Lars Ulrich. Torben was dubbed “the coolest dad in music.”

Who else would do deep dives on the sounds of tennis, music, and that night at the Newport Folk Festival when Dylan asked if anyone in the crowd could throw him a harmonica. Torben charmed us when he imagined the Pope kicking out the jams one night as he planned to sneak out of the Vatican “just to catch a slice of pizza – just one.”

If tennis ever had a Renaissance man, it was Ulrich. A member of Denmark’s royal tennis family (his dad and brother were great players), he was a high school dropout who was a clarinetist who shared a stage with Louis Armstrong, and was also a poet, filmmaker, painter, club owner, choreographer, esoteric music journalist, jazz composer and philosopher. Support your local zen master: “All is one, one is none, none is all.” 

And, lest we forget, he was also a tireless pilgrim who spent three months trekking across Denmark by lying on the ground, standing, moving three feet, lying back down and repeating—for 90 miles. An accomplished essayist, he analyzed the world’s most famous psychoanalyst, Sigmund Freud. And his home was packed with books such as “Women Mystics of Medieval Europe” and “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconsciousness.”

Rarely bored and quite content with his aloneness, he “talked with questions.” His ethos was to get in touch with your inner self and let it happen. He explained, “If I am in my groove, the ball will take care of itself.”  

Sports Illustrated observed that Ulrich was “an eternal transient who has never really belonged anywhere, and won’t until he ends up at some lonely Himalayan outpost reaching for enlightenment from a mysterious old Tibetan. He’s simply an anomaly in tennis, a man far removed from the game’s Hilton-by-the-pool indolence, or the striped tents scented with gin and tonic and thick with private-school inflections.”

Okay, Torben once drove his car the wrong way on a sidewalk, but he would also dip tennis balls in paint to create inventive canvases, with images of blue elephants, no less, for a touring art exhibition he cleverly called,  “Marks of Play, Re-Marks on Being.” 

Long before Djokovic, he ate healthy foods, did yoga and didn’t drink. Unlike Djokovic, Torben sported a ponytail and occasionally Tracy Austin-like pigtails.

Not surprisingly, it was a sight to behold when Ulrich (who looked like the kind of mischievous yet slightly gloomy wizard Harry Potter might fancy) showed up at smaller venues deep in the tennis outback. 

With this in mind, writer Mark Kram concocted one of the best tennis yarns we’ve ever encountered. He spun the tale that when Ulrich “materialized on the small, desolate fronts of winter tennis…it was almost as if the towns, pained by their narrow conventions, launched a campaign to ‘Make an Anarchist Feel at Home.’…Torben was seen as a sideshow mutation. Faces seemed to say: ‘Great, but make sure you take him with you when you leave.’” The inventive Kram then imagined this dialogue.

“Hey,” says a man… “ya hear about Ulrich in Macon, Georgia last year?”

“No, what happened in Ma….”

“He went to a Holy Roller meetin’, you know, a revival.”

“Is that right?”

“Yeah,” says the man. “He was dyin’ to see one of ’em, and you know what happened?”

“No, what hap….”

“He gets there,” says the man, “and inside, the preacher, he’s carryin’ on…sayin’ all this stuff about the fires of hell, and askin’ what they’d do if the good Lord himself walked in on all them sinners. Then you know what! Here comes Torben down the aisle. The women turn around, the preacher looks, his eyes poppin’. Know what happened? Five of them women just upped and fainted right on the spot, and the preacher, he’s up there hollerin’: ‘Oh, Lawd, oh, Laaawd, they’re sinners no more!”

When it came to tennis instruction, no one gave us more provocative tips than the sport’s most user-friendly cosmologist. Torben advised, “Watch the ball, bend your knees, and remember there are people suffering.” Then, at age 92, Ulrich released the record, “Oakland moments: cello, voice, reuniting (rejoicing),” that certainly is the only jazz album to offer tennis advice.

As a haunting cello plays in the background, Ulrich, sounding like a top-of-the-mountain pilgrim, asks Buddha, “‘Where should the ball be placed?’” And the Buddha said, ‘In the invisible infinite, all radiant consciousness…neither earth nor water, neither fire nor air…The ball should go to the spot where not even a Buddha can find a footing.’”

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1 COMMENT

  1. Bill~The first match I ever umpired was between Torben Ulrich and Gardner Malloy at the Germantown Cricket Club-National Seniors Grass Court Championship in 1967. Don’t ask me who won but Torben was a show unto himself with only one racquet. Jay

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