In his 53 years, Torben Ulrich has played in 100 Davis Cup matches for his native Denmark. His tennis history mirrors his beard: it is long and it roams to all points of the compass.
"I guess I am the gypsy of this tour," said Ulrich, who scores his points on and off the court in a very left-handed manner.
Ulrich and seven other players will compete in the three-day Grand Master's competition beginning tonight at 7 o'clock at Rock Creek Stadium. Competition will continue Sunday at 7 and the final will be held Monday night, also at 7.
This stop on the Grand Masters tour will be held in conjunction with the Washington Star International tournament. Qualifying rounds for the Star tournament will be held today and Sunday at 11 a.m. First-round competition will start Monday afternoon.
"Statistically, men are living longer nowadays because of medicine and other things," Ulrich said. "Well, the Grand Masters is sort of exploring how long the body can last. Maybe, in a small way, this group of eight men is challenging that gentelemen -- what do you call him ? -- Father Time?"
There are three qualifications for the Grand Masters tour: a player must be a former world-class champion, must be 45 or older and must still be able to play competitive tennis.
Joining Ulrich in this fifth stop on this year's tour are Frank Sedgman (54), the Australian who won eight Wimbledon titles in the 1950s; Vic Seixas (57), the 1953 Wimbledon champion; Mal Anderson (46), an Australian who won the 1957 U.S. championship; Sven Davidson (53), the Swede who won the 1957 French title; Alex Olmedo (45), who won the 1959 Wimbledon and Australian titles; Whitney Reed (48), who was ranked No. 1 in the U.S. in 1962, and Neale Fraser (47), the Australian who won the U.S. title in 1959 and the U.S. and Wimbledon titles in 1960.
The Grand Masters tour was created in 1973 by Alvin W. Bunis, a Cincinnati businessman. Bunis, the man who determines which players are still competitive enough to play ("I play God in that respect," he says), recently sold Grand Masters Inc. to the International Management Group of Cleveland.
But the founder will still serve as a consultant. "These players are living legends playing their sport at a reasonably high level," says Bunis. "This is not like a baseball oldtimers' game where Joe DiMaggio stumbles out to center field. These guys can still play."
In its nine years of existence, the Grand Masters tour has remained a stable enterprise. Crowds normally number about 1,000 and prize money for the singles winner in each of the 14-20 tournaments held all over the world each year is $3,000-$4,000 (maybe $1,000 for the doubles winners).
There have been apperances by Pancho Gonzales, Pancho Segura, Tony Trabert and Sam Giammalca. Each year means new possibilities. "Rod Laver will be eligible in two years. Our choices for picking players are almost always obvious ones," said Bunis.
The players like the concept of the Grand Masters and the opportunity it provides them.
"People can relate more to our game," said Neale Fraser. "There is more finesse and rally to our game. Some people are sick and tired of some of the younger players. People who come out to see us, well, they know us. They come up to us and say things like, 'I remember a certain match and a certain point from so many years ago."
"One thing that hasn't changed is our competitivenes," said Vic Seixas. "The pride and money aspect has something to do with it, too. It wouldn't be much fun for us to play in some local seniors tournament with no money or crowd and then lose to someone who we shouldn't even be playing."
Is any of the old stuff still there?
Fraser's serve used to be considered the best ever by a left-hander: "It's not as strong as it used to be, but I still win some points with it."
Seixas was known for his serve-and-volley game: "I can't blow someone off the court like i used to, but I still do all right."
And Ulrich? "The primary thing in the Grand Masters is the fun aspect," he said."The thrill of doing it all again is tremendous. For some, the money isn't important.
"For me," said Ulrich, "I need the money."