RG Story: Torben Ulrich, Tennis’ uninhibited great Dane

ONE MAN, ONE STORY. Tennis, Saint-Germain-des-Prés and… Metallica. Let's discover Torben Ulrich.

Torben Ulrich smiling at Roland-Garros©Gil de Kermadec/FFT
 - Lauriane Labes

Danish player Torben Ulrich made 14 appearances at Roland-Garros between 1948 and 1973, reaching the last 16 of the men’s singles on just one occasion, in 1959, when he was beaten by eventual champion Nicola Pietrangeli.

Winning was never Ulrich’s main motivation, however.

A free spirit

The Dane played for the fun of it and whenever he doubled up with friend and compatriot Kurt Nielsen, good humour and a carefree approach were always the order of the day. A darling of French crowds, the man from the north was not the nervous type and gave off an air of imperious calm.

While his game was not without flaws and his shot-making often unpredictable, his quirky style was especially popular, not least in the late 1960s, a time when the hippie revolution was in full swing and his long hair fell around his head in plaits and tresses.

Despite being an easy-going type, Ulrich had a habit of kicking back against authority. In 1956, during a Scandinavia Cup tie against Sweden, he threw a match following a controversial decision by the umpire. The lengthy suspension he subsequently received was not the first or the last of his career.

His free spirit also earned him a prison sentence lasting several months, the result of a refusal to wear uniform while doing military service.

Torben Ulrich hitting a backhand.©Gil de Kermadec/FFT

Tennis and Metallica

Ulrich was equally reluctant to follow rules during tournament time. A talented clarinet and saxophone player, he would spend his Roland-Garros evenings in the district of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, living out his passion for jazz at legendary basement club Vieux-Colombier with his friend and follow tennis player Jörgen.

As a result of his all-night jam sessions he was never available to play the following morning. “It was impossible for him to be on court before 2 pm because he was always asleep,” said his friend Gil de Kermadec.

Ulrich has fed his enduring love for music by attending festivals and concerts, writing columns in a major weekly publication and hosting radio shows that have proved a hit with young Danes, who identify themselves with his openly non-conformist attitude to life. He has passed that love on to his son Lars, the drummer of Metallica.

Though well into old age at 91, Ulrich still wears a long beard and the tender gaze of the player who earned such admiration during his playing career, since when he has nurtured his famously independent spirit by dabbling in painting, literature, dance and, of course, music.