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Tennis' Ageless Guru
At 47, Torben Ulrich has the body of a 20-year-old
and the mind of a philosopher...

By Willard Bailey
Photographs by Corson Hirschfeld

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Torben Ulrich never seems to get any older; he simply doesn't believe in it.

Several years ago Torben Ulrich lost to Pancho Gonzales in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships at Forest Hills. Afterwards, someone asked whether Pancho's fearsome serve had given him trouble. "Oh no," Torben responded, "I think his serve is a thing of beauty, and how can a thing of beauty give anyone trouble?"

On another occasion Ulrich was shocking the tennis world as he had John Newcombe down two sets to love, also at Forest Hills. A butterfly flew in Torben's face during a crucial point. The match seemed to turn after that and he eventually lost. Later, discussing the incident, he quoted the ancient Taoist philosopher Chuangtzu: "Was I then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or am I now a butterfly dreaming I was a man?"

No one was quite sure what that was all about, which was okay. It isn't necessary to understand Torben Ulrich in order to appreciate him. But it helps to be aware that he dances to mysterious rhythms only he can hear, carries an exceptional amount of very active gray matter around in his head, is a 47-year-old man who has somehow commandeered the body of a 20-year-old, and plays the hell out of three sets of tennis.

Midnight in Phoenix. Outside Sky Harbor airport, passersby stare quizzically at the tall, sinewy man with the beard and ponytail. Torben Ulrich has taken a contemplative forehand stance smack-dab in the middle of the sidewalk. He is wearing white tennis shoes, Levi's, a T-shirt, a navy-blue cape, a wristlet of beads and a copper bracelet. He is swinging one tennis racquet with his left hand and holding five others in his right. Their covers say Almaden Grand Masters Tennis Tour, Vintage '76. Over and over, very slowly, he executes the stroke, oblivious to the world around him, transfixed by the imponderables of the forehand.

A reporter asks if he' has ever played tennis in Phoenix before. "Yes," he responds in his ethereal way, "it was around 1896."

"In your other life?" she suggests. "No, in the same one. I've been doing this forever."

And it seems he has. The Ulrich family has been a dynasty in Danish tennis for nearly half a century. Torben has been a world-class player for three decades. Between 1948 and 1968 he played a record 98 Davis Cup matches for his country, often teaming in doubles with his younger brother, Jorgen, who played 47 matches. Their father, Einer, played 74 Davis Cup matches and later served as president of the Danish Lawn Tennis Association.

As late as 1974, Ulrich still appeared regularly in main-stream tennis events, playing with the Blue Group on the World Championship Tennis circuit. But these days, even though he occasionally pops up in a major tennis event in some far corner of the globe, his first love is the Almaden Grand Masters. In fact, he was the leading money-winner on the 1975 Almaden tour, winning six events and pocketing $34,425.

The Almaden Grand Masters are a resurrection of the great old champions of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Giants like Sven Davidson, Jaroslav Drobny, Pancho Gonzales, Frank Parker, Gardnar Mulloy, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Segura, Vic Seixas and, of course, Ulrich. Together, they hold more national and international titles and have played more Davis Cup matches than any group living or dead. The Almaden tour, now entering its third year, marks the first time in the history of organized sports that the all-time greats have returned in their autumn years to play their game competitively and for prize money. To qualify as a Grand Master, a player must meet three tough criteria: he must be at least 45 years old, a former world-class player and still able to play a strong, competitive game.

In most cases the Almaden Grand Masters play weekend mini-tournaments which feature eight players and a $10,000 purse. Each three-day affair becomes a celebration of youth in middle age, a tennis lesson from the world's finest teachers and, above all, a lesson in growing older with dignity and grace and courage.

The man behind this boomlet within the tennis boom is Cincinnatian Alvin W. Bunis. For 23 highly successful years, Bunis was a specialist in scrap iron. On the last day of 1972, at the ripe old age of 49, he sold his brokerage business and "retired" to become a specialist in scrap tennis players. Not that he was any stranger to the game. Bunis has always orbited big-time tennis, but only recently has he splashed down in the center of the action. As a junior he was ranked 17th in the United States, and until recently he was among the top ten senior amateurs. In 1943 he won the Tri-State Doubles Championship with Bill Talbert. Then, in 1952, he was unfortunate enough to draw Frank Sedgman in the opening round of the United States Championship at Forest Hills. Sedgman, then at the peak of his devastating game, chewed him up and spit him out. He staged a "comeback" in 1969 when he upset tennis Hall of Famer Gardnar Mulloy in a seniors tournament in Philadelphia.

But perhaps it is as a student of the game that Bunis has made his greatest contribution. In 1972 and '73 he was captain of the Dubler Cup Team (the seniors version of the Davis Cup). Today, he is seniors editor of Tennis and generally regarded as the world's leading authority on senior tennis.

His venture has become enormously successful. "This is a mom-and-pop operation, and I'm both," he says. "There are days when I'm so harassed I can't even remember my own phone number." Recently, in tennis hotbeds as far-flung as Melbourne (Australia) and Peoria. Johannesburg (South Africa) and Pebble Beach, the Grand Masters have been playing before sell-out crowds. And Bunis claims he is receiving three requests for every date he can fill. The 1976 Almaden tour, which begins in February, has been expanded. In addition to 11 tournaments in the United States, it will feature a series of events in Europe and South Africa.

Not only has the concept of a Grand Masters circuit caught on with the fans, the players like it too. "It's a very pleasant re-encounter with old friends," Ulrich says, "and it creates an environment where so many great players are present. For me, that means a constant source of inspiration as well as countless opportunities to learn."

It figures Torben Ulrich would cite the learning opportunities and not even mention the money. Learning has had an unusually high priority in his life, and the result is a list of talents longer than his hair. Not only has he managed to beat nearly every big name tennis player at one time or another, he is also an accomplished jazz musician, painter, music critic, newspaper columnist and radio and television personality. He has even made a movie.

But he is quick to acknowledge that a propensity for versatility may have exacted its toll. "During the '50s," he explains, "I was carrying my clarinet around with my tennis racquet. I was also writing about music, or maybe I should say I was trying to understand music by writing about it. I would play tennis on the tour during the day, then play jazz in some club almost every evening. After the club closed, I would have to write my daily column for Politiken, a Danish newspaper. So there were times between 1950 and 1960 when I got very little sleep. Often there was no time to practice tennis, only to play in the tournaments. So you see, all those years when Frank Sedgman was dominating the tennis world I was off somewhere listening to Persian music."

Whatever the siren-like distractions of the past, the Torben Ulrich of the mid-'70s is an intensely dedicated athlete. Perhaps that's why Al Bunis says, "It may well be that today, at 47, Torben is playing the best tennis of his life." And the other Grand Masters have long since given up trying to emulate his training program.

If you happened to be driving along a lonely road outside Scottsdale at 2 a.m. not so long ago and if you were startled to come upon a bearded, ponytailed figure loping along in the darkness, you need not swear off Mexican beer. It was just Torben Ulrich, still an incorrigible night person. He had awakened and decided it was time for a five-mile run in the desert. Not that he needed the exercise all that badly. The preceding afternoon he had won rather handily over Frank Parker, the U.S. National Champion of three decades ago. It was the opening round of the Almaden Grand Masters event at the slick new Camelback Racquet Club. After the match he had stayed on for nearly an hour -as long as Pancho Segura was willing to hit with him-to practice his errors. Then, after the evening matches, where he teamed with Sven Davidson to defeat Segura and Gardnar Mulloy in doubles, he hung around to hit a couple of hundred serves. Afterwards he explained, "I just feel like there are so many areas where I am unready and there is so much to learn."

In Torben's complex scheme of things, the tournaments represent something much more significant than merely three days of hard-fought competition. "There have been certain periods in my life where the situation was a music laboratory or a language laboratory or a film laboratory," he says. "But at this stage it seems to be a laboratory on what it means to be an aging athlete. In our Western world we were brought up to feel that once we were out of our 30s everything was downhill. So it has almost been taken for granted that a guy who is 40 or 50 cannot possibly compete with guys 20 or 25. I'm beginning to question whether that is actually so or whether we've just made it so, a folkway more than anything else. Recently we've been exposed to a lot of people from the Eastern world who are not necessarily slowed by the age factor as they go into their 50s and 60s. Possibly a man can go through a complete life of athletics without the whole thing deteriorating.

"You can see it in music. You have a piano player who is 25 and his fingers are very quick. Then you have a Rubinstein who is 87 and can still move his fingers. Maybe they're a little slower, but still fast enough for what the task is. If, at 87, he has to play Chopin or Mozart, maybe he has to warm up a little more but he can still do it. It has been said that the reflexes slow down. Maybe they do, but maybe they don't slow down enough for it to make all that much difference. Look at an aging dog or cat. Okay, maybe he's a little slower, but he can still move pretty fast when he has to.

"I think it has something to do with what I call speed potential. An athlete is like a racing car. At 25 he can go 200 miles an hour. When he reaches 50 maybe his engine isn't as finely tuned and he can go only 120. But suppose the speed limit is 55, or even 95, then 120 is more than enough. And that is particularly true if he is only competing against his own age group.

"So part of what I'm trying to do now is investigate a combination of running and stroking and theory and technology, and see where that takes us. Perhaps athletics can become a model for the study of the aging process in general, just as racing cars serve as models for the development of private cars."

Ulrich could hardly have picked a more appropriate laboratory. One would be hard put to come up with another group of older men who are as perfectly conditioned as the Almaden Grand Masters. And it shows. People are shocked to learn that Gardnar Mulloy is 62, that Frank Parker is 60. At a recent tournament, Abby Dalton, television actress and tennis buff, was told Vic Seixas is 52. "My God," she gasped, "and he hasn't even had a lift." During the event at the Camelback Racquet Club, three desert-toned lovelies were comparing legs-not theirs, the players'. After considerable debate, they agreed Torben Ulrich has the best legs among the group.

Beyond the aesthetic quality of Ulrich's legs, one is impressed by the ballet-like quality of his performance on the court. ("Sports," he likes to tell you, "can be looked upon as a type of modern dramatic dance.") His movements are lithe and graceful, almost girl-like. His natural ease, pensive manner and soft, lilting voice give the impression that, like Ferdinand the Bull, he's likely to pause in the middle of a close set to sniff the flowers.

But against Frank Sedgman in the finals at the Camelback he demonstrated that nothing could be farther from the truth. His game could only be described as vicious. His serve was deceptively powerful and his slashing volleys and crisp ground-strokes were placed with fiendish accuracy. Torben emitted great whooshing sounds as he moved about the court with mongoose quickness. Earlier matches were largely cat-and-mouse tennis, full of cunning and guile, but when Ulrich met Sedgman it was strictly heat versus heat. Back in the early '50s, while Ulrich was off somewhere listening to Persian music, Sedgman won 22 major tournaments before turning pro. But now Ulrich has caught up; he beat Sedgman in straight sets.

At the check presentation ceremony, Torben told the crowd, "I enjoy these confrontations with Frank because there is always a lot to be learned. Again today, it was a great lesson." He neglected to say for whom. Later, as he emerged from the locker room, someone asked him how much longer he intends to play. No one could be completely sure, of course, but it seemed that behind Ulrich's beard his face was perfectly straight when he answered, "Oh, I don't know, maybe another 200 years or so."

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Willard Bailey is a Cincinnati based free-lance writer.