Now Playing


Sunday, July 20, 2008

La Balle Au Mur

Have you ever seen a 77-year-old man do pushups?

“Here, it’s easy, you try it,” says grey-bearded Torben Ulrich as he flips a half-moon ball, balances the rubber on his carpet and thrusts away from the floor. “It’s a good feeling.”

Never mind that Ulrich played his last pro tennis match before resistance balls were invented. Here he is, prone on the bedroom floor of his upscale Seattle apartment, pistons pumping like a Marine.

But Ulrich is not tennis’ answer to Jack LaLanne; his home is the byproduct of a mind as busy as his body. Bookshelves cocoon every room, stacked high and wide with tomes like Women Mystics of Medieval Europe and Wit and its Relation to the Unconsciousness. An extravagant Buddhist shrine spans the sparse family room, adorned with 20 or so photos of teachers, tidy cups of rice and incense, and two statues of deities in mid-pose.

But what’s most striking are the bamboo ladders, in the foyer and bedroom. One narrows as it extends downward, the other closes in on its way up.

“We like to think of ourselves as living in the space in between,” Ulrich says about the home he shares with wife Molly Martin. “Where we can abstain from the ranking system—where one is better than another.”

In many ways, Ulrich has lived in that space his entire life. During his five decades on tour he beat the world’s best tennis players, set Davis Cup records and won a Wimbledon tournament. But to him the titles are almost accidental, consequences of a larger ideal. Younger generations recognize him as the father of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, but tennis fans know his persona ventures from athlete to musician, painter, poet, filmmaker, novelist, journalist. As we sit down, he opens two biographies published in his native Denmark. In one, a photo shows him stark naked in front of a tent at a spiritual retreat in Saanen, Switzerland. In the other, he’s getting hauled off a court in Calcutta after collapsing mid-match.

As a child in Copenhagen, Torben Ulrich excelled in speed skating, soccer and handball, but “my very earliest years were around the tennis court,” he says. He, brother Jorgen and father Einer formed the royal family of Danish tennis, playing 228 Davis Cup matches among them. To this day, Torben holds the Danish record for most ties (40) and years played (20).

In the ’50s and ’60s, Ulrich won a dozen Danish championships and took home titles around the world, including the French Indoor Championships and the Asian Championships in Lahore, Pakistan. “He plays a game within a game according to the rules he alone understands, to a tune he alone is hearing,” wrote Sports Illustrated in 1969. “He becomes a part of the game, not a disruptive part, but a part almost like the ball, moving as gracefully, as predictably as the movements of a piece of music.”

Ulrich’s focus showed on the Grand Masters tour; today he prefers to mug for the camera at Seattle’s Pike Place Market.

Music, it turns out, is the perfect analogy. From the very beginning, Ulrich’s racquet wasn’t his only instrument. He cherished his clarinet just as much, if not more. In 1952 Ulrich and friends opened the Blue Note, a club that gave him the chance to share the stage with greats like Louis Armstrong, Stan Getz and Dexter Gordon (Lars’ godfather) as they passed through Copenhagen. Not surprisingly, smoky jazz bars and singles matches weren’t always a harmonious combination. “Sometimes I couldn’t even get up for air,” Ulrich says.

In his halcyon youth, Ulrich would play at the Blue Note until about 1 a.m., head off to the office of the Danish newspaper Politiken for food, write a jazz column, then hit a café. “I’d meet up with friends who were still up, and then we’d have some beers and some breakfast, and sometimes sit there until 11 or 12,” he says. Noon meant band rehearsal, and then it was off to practice with the Davis Cup team at 4. When that wound down, it was time for another show at the Blue Note. “And all of a sudden, there were three or four days where I hadn’t slept,” he says. “But you can see how if you got into that cycle, and if you saw a lady or two in between, there was a lot of stuff going on.” More than once, it became too much.

“I had the taxi guy take me to the hospital, and I’d sort of lay low there for a couple of days,” he recalls thoughtfully.

The tennis circuit pulled just as hard, whether it was exploring Marrakech in a tournament car or gallivanting through Egypt with Gussie Moran, the sport’s first female sex symbol. “He made it to the top of the world of tennis without having to dedicate himself 24/7 just to tennis,” says fellow pro Jim McManus. “And I think that’s the remarkable thing about Torben; his 24/7 included so many other things that it would fill 10 lifetimes of most normal people.”

But even the most steely-eyed explorer can’t keep such a schedule forever. At 45, Ulrich was invited to join the famed Grand Masters circuit, which featured champions who could still swing a mean stroke, like Pancho Gonzales and Frank Sedgman. (Rod Laver and Ken Rosewall joined later.) “It wasn’t until the Grand Masters that [tennis] was more of a singularity,” Ulrich says. And then the true athlete bloomed, claiming the No. 1 world ranking on the circuit in 1976, and taking the Wimbledon Centennial senior doubles title with Sven Davidson.


Before Metallica, Lars Ulrich was a ranked juniors player in Denmark.

But even at his career apex, Ulrich maintains that he was never interested in the outcome. “I know what the score is, but it doesn’t mean I’m attached to it,” says the devout Buddhist. “To me, the competition part of it, the score, was never of such importance. All of this was more of being open to a larger adventure, if you will, in terms of coming to a place and being open to what can happen, what you can learn.”

Stories of Ulrich’s spirit have filled books and locker rooms around the world. To kill time between practice sessions at Wimbledon, he would venture to a bank of phone booths under Centre Court and practice a saxophone down the line. (“I could play around seven minutes in one booth, and then I couldn’t breathe any more,” he says. “It would be too moist and soggy.”) He performed muscle experiments, like opening a door for half an hour or pushing a ball around a court with his nose. Following an old Tibetan practice, he spent three months trekking across Denmark by laying on the ground, standing, moving three feet, laying back down and repeating—for 90 miles.

Outside of his apartment, Ulrich acts his age. He takes my arm as we inch through Seattle’s Pike Place Market, past stalls hosing down and folding up for the night. We stop at a spot where young men hurl salmon from counter to counter to the delight of a few remaining tourists. “Hey, Mr. T!” shouts a fish flinger. They embrace, and make plans to play music later in the week. “This guy is a book of stories,” he says to me as Ulrich beams.

At 77, Ulrich is just as busy as he once was and ever will be. He recently finished a book of poems (or “lines”) called Terninger, tonefald, and crafted an essay on Sigmund Freud for a Danish book commemorating Freud’s 150th birthday. When the mood strikes he will wrap a studio in visqueen and slap ink-soaked jump ropes on rice paper, then “seal” the work with an inked tennis ball and poetry. He’s working on a sequel to his 2002 film, Before the Wall: Body & Being, an analysis of breath and awareness, whose soundtrack consists entirely of modulations of the smack of a Lars forehand. He vocalizes for an experimental Seattle band, However, with an “aspiration to dwell on sound itself as it unfolds in a fragile balance of line and pulse.”

And he still finds time for tennis. Every so often Ulrich’s neighbors will pull into their underground parking garage to find a lean, bearded man wearing a backwards hat and nailing forehands and backhands off the concrete walls. He does it as much for the exercise as to explore the sounds that reverberate off every corner.

But exploration takes many forms. Up in the living room, Ulrich takes a flute from a case, puts it to his lips and blows. But there’s no note—just a faint, flitty wind sound. “I’m trying to play a tone on the flute that is not there, so you only hear the overtones, where the flute kind of breaks,” he says. “The interplay of what you don’t see is what I’m interested in. “To me, the space in between is very important. The rhythm of that possibility, but also the breathing of that rhythm, if you will. The breathing of possibility.”

Torben Ulrich won a dozen championships in the '50s and '60s; An Ulrich original.

"Journey of a Lifetime", by Matt Williams, Deuce Magazine, June 2006 -- []

Torben's Art
...using tennis racquets and balls and also skipping rope with paint.

Torben's Art Makes excellent Wallpaper!

La Balle Au Mur

La Balle Au Mur
"The Ball and The Wall"
("La Balle Au Mur")

For many ballplayers, across the various fields, having a wall as a practice partner was a training tool almost taken for granted. Over the years, however (with the advent of ball machines, etc.), the wall as a place of practice seemed to go out of fashion, if not become almost obsolete. Gil de Kermadec of the French Tennis Federation, director of an exemplary series of films on tennis (McEnroe, Borg, Evert, Connors), here sets out with Torben Ulrich in a two-fold approach, asking many past champions (Lacoste, Laver, Navratilova, Rosewall, Nastase) about their experiences with the wall, as well as looking into a variety of techniques that could extend the possibilities for practice and play.
Directed by Gil de Kermadec and T.U., 1988. 45 minutes
Note: Recent attempts by e-mail to inquire about purchasing this or other films/videos have not received a response.

Tennis For Dummies P.211

After Work: Unusual post-tennis careers

By Dan Weil
Photos by Getty Images/Hulton Archives

Pro tennis players, emerging from all corners of the globe and all different kinds of backgrounds, are an engaging bunch. Playing an individual sport, many of them march to the beat of their own drums.So it’s probably not a huge surprise that after their playing days are over, many former pros end up in jobs a bit less conventional than a middle-management position at a major corporation.Some, of course, stay closely connected to tennis. John McEnroe, Patrick McEnroe, Pam Shriver, Cliff Drysdale and Mary Joe Fernandez, among others, have had years of success as TV commentators. Others have taken up coaching, like Tony Roche, Brad Gilbert and now Jimmy Connors. Jim Courier has revived the senior tour in the U.S. with the Outback Champions Series.But others have gone far afield from their playing days. Here are a few of the most interesting career choices.

Andrea Jaeger — This two-time Grand Slam finalist, now 41, seemed to cultivate the ultimate teen-brat image during her heyday in the early 1980s. Perhaps she was just misunderstood. After injuries forced an early retirement, Jaeger used the money she made from tennis to start the Little Star Foundation in 1990. The group provides all kinds of support to children suffering from disease and poverty, including trips to a ranch in Aspen for the kids to have a week of fun. Jaeger has drawn the support of John McEnroe, Little Star’s first donor; Andre Agassi; and Pete Sampras too. And if that wasn’t virtuous enough, last September, Jaeger became an Anglican Dominican nun.

Torben Ulrich— Tennis has had a few renaissance men and women, none more so than the 77-year-old Dane who played Davis Cup for 20 years. He answers to writer, artist, musician and filmmaker. He also is father of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Torben once created Jackson Pollock-like art by dipping tennis balls in paint and then pelting them against a canvas. His writing ranges from books of poetry to commentary on Sigmund Freud. During his playing days, Ulrich opened a jazz club in Copenhagen and played saxophone for seven minutes in a phone booth under Wimbledon’s Centre Court – until he couldn’t breath anymore. Now he can spend hours blowing into a flute, searching for a new tone.

Roscoe Tanner— He won the Australian Open in 1977 and was Wimbledon runner-up in 1979. But since retiring from the tour in 1985, life has snowballed downhill for the 55-year-old former Stanford star. He has been married three times, impregnated a woman from an escort service, bounced a check to buy a boat, used the boat as collateral for a loan and spent 10 months at prisons in Germany and the U.S. for unpaid child support and debt. The tennis court has been no sanctuary for Tanner. He has been arrested twice while playing

The Journeyman On Torben Ulrich

This week, I’d like to talk about one of the most eccentric professional tennis players ever. Torben Ulrich, from Copenhagen, Denmark, was a long-haired, bearded Charles Manson lookalike who competed from the 1940s to the 1970s. He won many singles titles and played in numerous Davis Cup matches for Denmark. He was one of the founding members of the ATP Tour in 1972.

He was a mainstay on the tour in the 1960s, but never won a Grand Slam title. He was prolific in many endeavors, including filmmaking, radio, paintings, and a music career. He would schedule practice courts at Wimbledon at dusk and instead of having a knock up with a player, he would sit cross-legged at the corner of the service box in the middle of the court and meditate to soak up positive energy with the hope that it would carry over into his match the next day.

In the 1950s, he would write reviews for the Daily Paper Politiken in Copenhagen about jazz music. He penned a book titled “Jazz, bold and buddhisme,” an anthology of his writings from the 1940s to 2000, published by Informations Forlag.

His most famous creative product was probably the film he co-directed with Frenchman Gil de Kermadec called “The Ball and the Wall,” about the importance of hitting against the wall in tennis. The film includes numerous interviews with former champions and footage of him hitting a ball against many walls around the globe.

Ulrich also dabbled in painting. He would make imprints with ink and acrylic on rice paper and use tennis racquets and balls and also skipping rope with paint on it as his instruments. He also was a radio correspondent in the US while on the road playing tennis. He would host the show and relay new jazz music from around the world to Danish radio. His son Lars, is currently the drummer for the rock band Metallica.

Lastly, Ulrich was a deep thinker. Upon the coin toss in a match against Tony Roche once at Wimbledon, Roche spun his racket and asked Ulrich to pick the up or down sign on his racket. Ulrich replied before the toss, “I like watching your service motion, it’s so elegant, why don’t you serve first Tony?”