Can tennis bring back Acapulco's allure of decades past?


Rafael Nadal takes part in a training session at the Abierto Mexicano Telcel tennis tournament in Acapulco. EPA/Cecilia Casla Urteaga

MEXICO CITY -- Close to a century ago, King Edward VIII of England -- then the Prince of Wales -- regaled Europeans with stories of a beautiful Mexican port on the western side of the country. Acapulco, as it was known, had beautiful beaches and superb weather year-round. Many quickly flocked to it, turning the old colonial seaport into a luxury destination overnight.

Only a few decades later, Acapulco became one of the most popular destinations in the world, attracting both foreign and domestic jet-setters and the cream of the Hollywood crop on a regular basis. On any given day during that period, Acapulco residents could spot Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor or John Wayne strolling about their palatial digs. After their 1953 wedding, John F. Kennedy and Jackie Kennedy honeymooned there, when the former was still a Senator with presidential aspirations. Later, with JFK in office, Elvis Presley starred in "Fun in Acapulco," a film that also brought attention to the La Quebrada cliff divers, who jump more than a hundred feet into waters of varying depth.

Ensuing years kept Acapulco a viable destination, although with fading allure. By the time cartels opened up a bloody front to the Mexican Drug War at the turn of this century, the mystique was all but gone, and its place as Mexico's top beach destination had long been usurped by Cancun, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta. In 2016, Acapulco was listed as having the fourth-highest murder rate in the world per 100,000 inhabitants, making it the country's most dangerous locale. Just 130 miles away from Acapulco, events in Iguala triggered international outrage in 2014, when 43 students went missing and are presumed dead, in an episode that prompted further condemnation towards the region.

Despite this, Acapulco is still a go-to for Mexicans looking for a weekend beach getaway (the city is a four-hour drive from Mexico City), and it has retained some of its status as a tourist destination in Latin America. Nowadays, when the eyes of the world do glance upon the city, names like Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal bring the international sparkle that movie stars and politicians once provided.

The Mexican Open, an ATP fixture since 1993, has long attracted strong competitors into its fold. When the tournament moved to Acapulco from Mexico City in 2001, Grand Slam winners like Gustavo Kuerten, Carlos Moya, Venus Williams and Stan Wawrinka were enticed into participating. Nadal, who has won the event twice, is just one of the Spaniards who have dominated Acapulco in recent years. Seven out of the last nine editions have been won by players from that nation on the men's side, four of which have been for David Ferrer, who last won it in 2015.

This year's event will be the toughest yet, a fact Nadal will readily admit to.

“For Mexico, for the tournament and for the organizers – it'll be great to have a player like Djokovic,” Nadal told AS when he arrived in Acapulco on Friday. “It's the best [group] I can remember.”

Indeed, scoring the No. 2-ranked player in the world in Djokovic has been quite the coup for organizers, who compete with the overlapping Dubai Tennis Championships to lure talent each year. While the likes of Andy Murray and Roger Federer will indeed suit up in the Middle East in lieu of the Mexican tournament, Acapulco arguably boasts its strongest playing field yet, on the men's side.

“We've got six of the top 10 ranked players in the world, [and other] stars like Juan Martin del Potro, Ivo Karlovic and Nick Kyrgios. It's going to be very good,” said Raul Zurutuza, the tournament's director.

Djokovic, who had preferred Dubai over Mexico for the entirety of his career, broke the news himself on social media.

"We're very happy to have Djokovic in Acapulco for the first time,” Zurutuza later stated in an interview with ESPN Mexico. “I think it's important to note that we'd been talking to him and his team for the last year and a half.”

The 12-time Grand Slam winner will be making only his second trip to Latin America in his entire pro career, the first coming less than a year ago at the Rio Olympics, where he exited in the first round on the men's singles side of the tournament. The female group will also feature a strong lineup, including Rio gold medal winner Monica Puig, in a field that contains six of the world's top 50 women.

The tournament, which switched from clay to hard courts in 2014, presents a unique physical challenge for players, largely due to the weather. The city's mean temperature in February is a balmy 86°F, with high rates of humidity throughout the day. Despite the climate, Acapulco has remained a favorite of both the ATP and the WTA, being recognized a combined nine times by both organizations as the International Tournament of the Year in the last 12 years.

This year, it seems poised to break through once more, by adding the aforementioned star power. The appeal from organizers, seems to be equally directed to the public, as well as the players.

“We hope to have Djokovic fall in love with Acapulco so we can have him [play here] many more years,” said Zurutuza.

YOUR REACTION?

Facebook Conversations