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The ball comes, the potential is endless

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(Below is an unedited Google translation of "Bolden kommer, potentialet er uendeligt", a review by Anders Haahr Rasmussn of "Boldens øjne, værens ben: Notater langs idrættens spalte(n)de veje" ("Eyes of the Ball, Bones of Being: Notations along the divisive ways of athletics") that appeared in the Danish newspaper Information, Oct. 19, 2018.) To see the original in Danish (as PDF), click the image at left.)

The ball comes, the potential is endless

Torben Ulrich can get self noble people to dance on the tables and even tanned tennis commentators to watch the game with fresh eyes

By Anders Haahr Rasmussen

One Tuesday afternoon in July, I drank a cup of tea in a small clubhouse at the tennis court where Wimbledon is running. The place was reserved for members of The Last 8 Club, which one becomes part of by playing out among the last eight participants in its row, which means the quarter finals in single or semi-finals in doubles. I was there on my press card.

Frew McMillan was there by winning the title in men's doubles three times, most recently 40 years ago. Since then, he has become a commentator for British Eurosport, just as I am for the channel in Denmark, and as colleagues we sat in the deep purple sofas and talked a little about tennis. We talked about Torben Ulrich among other things. Back in 1967, McMillan, on his way to his first Wimbledon title, defeated Torben Ulrich and his partner in the quarterfinals. He still remembered that, but not as clearly as he remembered a dinner he was after after a small tournament.

Such a dinner, the tradition of belief, for players, sponsors and the tournament management with usual sneaking and toasting. Except that the organizers had asked Torben Ulrich to keep the speech on behalf of the players. And when the Danes got up, no words came out. There was quiet in the room, but Ulrich said nothing, did nothing. Until he climbed onto the table and started dancing. With his long beard and fluttering arms he danced loose, while the dinner guests sat silent and glowing.

"Stunned," as Frew McMillan described them. No one, including himself, had ever seen anything like it. So the fun was that some years later, Frew McMillan, after having participated in a tournament in Copenhagen, where Torben's brother Jørgen Ulrich was present, had to keep the speech for the following dinner and, as he says, "a Torben".

As he sat there in the small clubhouse, dark habit jacket over the needle-striped shirt, tie in the Windsor knot and the hair in the combed side skirt, it required some imagination to see him dance loose in front of, among others, a handful of fellow members of The All England Club one with more rigid upper lip than the other, and that is also how he could tell me that he is regularly reminded of his 'speech'.

"Still dancing on tables, Frew?" As one of the club members had asked him as late as the day before.

Torben Ulrich asks another question through most of his book Bolden's eyes, the legs of the weather, most clearly formulated on page 12: "When it comes down to it, can it be done differently? Maybe. For example, if we began with another beginning. Not from the front, but from where we are, amidst the habit, accustomed, the normative, the habitable. "

It has been one of Ulrich's characteristics: breaking with the habit, doing it differently. When he dances on the table instead of speaking. When he leaves so-called important tennis matches midway to watch football on television. When he refuses to serve, he also refuses to be a military denial. The book was released on October 4, the same day as Torben Ulrich turned 90, and the same day as Gallery Tom Christoffersen held an opening reception for Ulrich's exhibition The room of space, the game's brands, a new series of rice paper paintings made with skipping rope, tennis rackets and balls. One of them serves as the front motif for the book, which has been underway for about 40 years, and which tries to formulate the ideas that underlie Ulrich's lifelong commitment as a musician, jazz critic, artist, filmmaker, writer and not least tennis player. Or maybe rather: ball player. Or just: sportsman.

His great commitment is "the game room" the moment the ball comes. "When the ball comes", like most of the lyrical songlines that fill the book's left-hand sides, while the right-hand side is a kind of philosophical essay, which especially tries to deal with the notion that a ball game has winners and losers. "How could it, as it seems, built-in inclination, slope, to reduce almost everything to the binary, and almost everything to the binary to number, how could that be solved for this bias?"

"How could it, as it seems, built-in inclination, slope, to reduce almost everything to the binary, and almost everything to the binary to number, how could that be solved for this bias?"

It is a wonderful word he finds invented, I think. Binærighed. For it is precisely the two-part thinking petty and narrow-minded that is at stake when the game is reduced to results, statistics, to the measurable and the manageable, trophies and failures, cheers and cries.

In particular, it affects me in my own job as a tennis commentator. It's hard not to fall into the listings the players' mutual showdowns, quote the server statistics when she beats another double mistake, the record he can beat if he wins another Masters title. It fits in, it sounds right, that's how tennis acclaim should be. Unless it could be different.

I remember once being challenged to use the words "Egyptian" and "inter-municipal" during a fight. A stepladder that helped change my focus. Because there was actually some intermunicipal over Ferrers game in second set. And the tournament structure, built on the wind or disappearance principle, was like an Egyptian pyramid with 128 players in the first round and winning at the top. I wonder what it would do if I treated the match ball without much interest than a duel in the midst of thirsty sets? Without greater interest than the warming, where the players stand and turn friendly and backwards? The warm-up, where they play with each other and not - as when the judge has said "play" and the fight starts - play against each other? Although the judge just called for play, for play.

"Is it possible to play ball," asks Ulrich, "dialogic ball, where we aim to show, not how we can handle the other, but how we can jointly open up the potentials, the untried, the untried, surprising, Unexpected that had to be hidden in the individual disciplines? The game, the sporting game, unfolded as a braid of the common body. "

When I hear the word 'potentials', I think of Gael Monfils. How often I have commented on the Frenchman and at the same time smiled and shook his head with his insane blow, his hopeless decisions, how to momentarily hump around like an old man, then fly through the air, literally lying a meter over ground while hitting the ball. How often I've come to talk to the story of Monfils as a story of wasted potential. Monfils as a physical splendor, as a great talent who lacks the discipline to fulfill his potential.

Potential for what, Torben Ulrich would ask. Potential to win the big titles? The victory as the overriding motif. Also for the training, which only serves as "improvement opportunity for something else, on the match, the game, the championship, a higher number in the rankings". The victory as an imagined climax that seduces one away from the moment.

Could exercise or exercise, ask Ulrich, be "something that is potentially continuous (...) a vigilance, potentially continuous. In the car, under the shower, during sleep ".

Could the potential of Monfils, I ask myself, be about expanding the possibilities of what tennis can be, how to be on a track, playing and dancing and beating and playing with the ball and opponent, who is also the player. Could the score be an element of the situation without taking over the whole perspective. And is it relevant that the photographers - so endlessly tired of the same movements, the same advance, the same jubilee scene, fist, the hands up, what Ulrich calls "an increasingly stiff theatrical gesture" - that they love to photograph Monfils. Because he really lives, spontaneously.

Like Frew MeMillan was inspired to even dance on the table, I have it with Torben Ulrich, that every time I read his writings, watching his movies, hear him give interview, talk about tennis and life and the breath, so I feel like play and write for yourself and talk about tennis and life with different open eyes. Or what Ulrich, living for decades in the United States, calls freshness:

"Seeing the situation in a new light, another light, still within the possibilities remaining, but also as the process of taking the remainder of its narrowing, see the situation freed from the stipulated, with its affiliations, habits, inclinations. «

And finally, it immediately paradoxical: That I only know of Gael Monfils because he was the world's best junior player, won everything he touched, and then, as an adult, in the top ten in the rankings, three Masters finals, two Grand Slam Semifinals, which he probably lost, but he was there, are still among the best. Like Torben Ulrich was in his time, and that is not an insignificant detail. That is why his experiments and rebellion were heard. He has a voice to deal with the eternal focus on victory because he himself so often won.

I do not point to it as contradictory or hypocritical. Ulrich's universe kindly contains the kind of ambiguity, bathing and, neither-or, knowing the rules before you break them. His own website also contains both the books and the art and the variegated thoughts as well as a long list of the measurable achievements: titles in Paris Indnors, Monte Carlo, Madrid, a first place in the rankings and, of course, a membership of The Last 8 Club for his semifinals at Wimbledon in 1959.

Back in the little clubhouse, my talk with Frew McMillan then ended with a somewhat different memory of Ulrich. It was from a tournament in Cape Town, back in the years when McMillan and his partner were virtually invincible. There they stood on the home ground in South Africa against Torben Ulrich and Jan Leschly. McMillan and I had traveled from the couches, he was going on. His voice was a bit deeper now, more serious, this was not about Torben Ulrich as a gambled inspirator, but as an unusually skilled tennis player, the respect it required.

"They hit us," he said, as if it were still grazing a little behind him.

"They did. They actually hit us".

(Photo caption) Is it possible to play dialogic ball and together search the untried, the surprising and the unexpected and make the game a braid of the common body capability, asks Torben Ulrich - here during a Wimbeldon match in 1964. Photo: Ritzau Scanpix