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If you haven't seen the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, you really ought to. It's much less about the music than about the peculiar and, at times, brittle dynamic of a band -- even one of the most commercially successful bands in music history.
If you have seen the film, you know that considerable scene-stealing is done by drummer Lars Ulrich's father, Torben. Sporting a beard that would shame any member of ZZ Top, and speaking like a mystic with a Danish accent, Torben is one of the few folks who offers honest assessment of the music. At one point he listens to a Metallica track, strikes a pensive pose and then gently says to his son: "Just delete it."
The movie's director team of Bruce Sinofsky and Joe Berlinger were the brains behind the haunting, powerful documentary Paradise Lost and then the follow-up, Revelations. (Both of which make effective use of Metallica's music, which is why the band agreed to this warts-and-all exposure.) Perhaps their sequel to Some Kind of Monster will revolve solely around Torben.
On the surface, Ulrich pere is a walking cliché: just another Danish Buddhist filmmaker/music critic/poet who backed up Louis Armstrong on clarinet and is currently preparing an exhibit of his artistic renderings on rice paper. Sparing us the embarrassment of trying to describe the art, he was kind enough to send us these links: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4.
And though it barely registers a line on his uber-resume, Torben was also a longtime fixture on the tennis tour, a smooth and, not surprisingly, cerebral, left-hander who reached the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the third round of Wimbledon and played more than 100 Davis Cup ties for Denmark.
British writer Martin Amis famously remarked that when the term "personality" is used in conjunction with a tennis player, it's code for "ass----." (See: Connors, Jimmy, inter alia.) By any definition, Ulrich had an abundance of personality, but his was informed by compassion and depth of character.
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At the 1968 U.S. Open, he lost a five-setter to John Newcombe. During a key point, a butterfly alighted on the court and distracted him. Asked about it afterwards, Torben responded: "Was I then a man dreaming I was butterfly? Or am I now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?" Another time, he nearly had to default a match at Wimbledon because he couldn't tear himself from a jazz performance that had transfixed him. "Ulrich is the game's one great blithe spirit," American player Gene Scott told SI in 1969. "What is normal for everyone else is not for Torben. He sees everything from upside down."
To traffic in understatement, Ulrich still has a unique perspective. Like most everyone who follows the sport, he is in awe of Roger Federer. Except while most observers describe Federer with conventional terms like "phenomenal" and "awesome," Ulrich goes a tad deeper: "A minor miracle has appeared. Please italicize 'miracle' because in my book, a miracle is a big thing. But the marvel is that Federer has emerged amid all this heavy hitting and he is floating above it all in a wonderful, easy dance. We haven't seen anything like it since McEnroe and that was a sort of genius-in-spite-of-it-all. Some of McEnroe was so paradoxical. Technically he was awkward but it had its own aesthetic. It was very beautiful in its awkwardness. But Federer has such an ease. He has a flow, a spreading out that is so poetic, so precious."
As for the women's game, Ulrich counts himself as a supporter. But he believes the women's tour -- and who among us hasn't expressed this thought? -- is still striving for stasis. "I'm not sure any player has found their own form. Navratilova, for example, out of a longish process, found her own base, her own way of expressing herself. I haven't seen the whole Russian Thing, for instance, really develop where it has an 'Own-ness.' Look at Ernie Els' follow-through in golf. Or Francoise Durr's backhand. We haven't seen anything in women's tennis where it's its own like that, where it comes out of someone rather than imitation."
Ulrich turns 76 next week. When he's not returning to Denmark (where he is a minor celebrity) or traveling to catch a Metallica concert ("With my background in jazz, I have a good ear for tempo so I usually critique that"), he lives in downtown Seattle where he can buy a piece of fish at the Pike Place Market and then prepare it as he watches the sun set over Puget Sound. Though he's not beyond hitting some tennis balls with Lars -- a top junior player as a teenager who did some hard time at Nick Bollettieri's Academy -- Torben's tennis is mostly limited to striking balls coated in paint against paper, and accompanying the images with "athletically or musically oriented" essays.
Still, he speaks fondly and passionately of his decades on the circuit and is still a fan. How does he reconcile sports with his Buddhism and his higher pursuits? As he remarked at a recent philosophy conference: "For me, [sports] is all about finding other ways of playing. To be close to the game, to become at one with the ball, the physical exercise and the play. Sport is not always about achieving a goal -- it's more to do with moving forward. Seeing moment. Seizing moment. Bingo!"
In other words, winning and losing might be important. But to borrow from a certain heavy metal band, plenty else matters.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.