For Iron Curtain poets and old hippies lost in a dead time, for misbegotten talents and esthetes weary of the world, the Chelsea Hotel in New York has long been an eminent stop on the international bohemian railroad. It is a place with an air of faded elegance, a place that has seen much light and much shadow. Thomas Wolfe loosed his mad river of genius there, Brendan Behan's whiskied braying shook its halls and it was there that Dylan Thomas ended his death march. It is also the retreat of Torben Ulrich. He is an amateur tennis player, which means he belongs anywhere but in the Chelsea Hotel.
Torben Ulrich, the bearded eternal transient, age 41 and from Copenhagen, has never really belonged anywhere, and won't until he ends up at some lonely Himalayan outpost reaching for enlightenment from a mysterious old Tibetan. He is simply an anomaly in world tennis, a man far removed from the Hilton-by-the-pool indolence, or the striped tents scented with gin and tonic and thick with private-school inflection. " Ulrich," says Gene Scott, long a player on the circuit, "is the game's one great blithe spirit. What is normal for everybody else is not for Torben. He sees everything from upside down."
Such a viewing angle is also helpful for any appreciation of Ulrich, especially when he suddenly materializes on the small, desolate fronts of winter tennis. The visual patterns seldom change during a year in these towns, and when Ulrich reaches a place such as Salisbury, Md. or Macon, Ga. he is the center of attention. It is almost as if the town, pained by its narrow conventions, has launched a campaign to "Make an Anarchist Feel at Home." It is also obvious he is one with the sideshow mutation, and the faces seem to say: great, but make sure you take him with you when you leave.
"Hey," says a man in Salisbury, "ya hear about Ulrich in Macon last year?"
"No, what happened in Ma...."
"He went to a Holy Roller meetin', you know, a revival."
"Is that right?"
"Yeah," says the man. "He was dyin' to see one of 'em, and you know what happened?"
"No, what hap...."
"He gets there," says the man, "and inside, the preacher, he's carryin' on somethin' awful. Sayin' all this stuff about the fires of hell, and askin' what they'd do if the good Lord himself walked in, just upped and walked right in on all them sinners. You know what! Here comes Torben down the aisle. The women turn around, the preacher looks, his eyes poppin'. Know what happened? Five of them women just upped and fainted right on the spot, and the preacher, he's up there hollerin': Oh, Lawd, oh, Laaawd, they're sinners no more."