Tennis: Mexican Open glitz clashes with violent Acapulco backdrop


Acapulco (Mexico) (AFP)

Some of the world's top tennis stars are in Acapulco this week for the Mexican Open, but the glamour of the tournament has been tarnished by the Pacific resort city's brutally violent crime.

Famous in its heyday as a destination for Hollywood stars, from John Wayne to Sylvester Stallone, Acapulco has become more known in recent years as the scene of bloody turf wars between drug cartels.

City and state officials are trying to use the Mexican Open to fight back against that reputation, and the tournament has become a major drawcard: this year, five of the world's top 10 men's players came -- six if you count world number two Rafael Nadal, who had to pull out at the last minute because of injury.

But even as the stars grace the stunning seaside court, soaking up the balmy weather and grinning for the cameras in giant mariachi hats, the authorities have been busy securing a series of gruesome crime scenes.

"I admit we have a security problem, like the entire country. But I can assure you the zone (around the stadium) is very safe, thanks to the deployment of the army and the police," Guerrero state Governor Hector Astudillo told AFP.

A short drive from the palm-lined streets where the tournament is held, a more sordid reality blotches the postcard-perfect setting.

On Wednesday, seven corpses were found around the city of 700,000 people, including two taxi drivers apparently murdered for refusing to pay extortion money.

- Beheaded bodies -

On Valentine's Day, the gory crime scene of the day was a severed head left on the sidewalk in a gift box with a balloon tied to it.

But officials are determined not to let Acapulco's dark side obscure the sunlight -- especially heading into Saturday's tournament finals.

"It's the city's highest-visibility event," said Astudillo. Thanks to the tournament, "the Acapulco brand is visible around the world."

Around 1,000 soldiers and police were deployed to provide security at the Open.

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) event draws some 20,000 people each day, generating around $37 million in revenue, according to tourism officials.

"It's become the main event leading up to the Indian Wells and Miami tournaments," said Alejandro Castillo, head of Mexico's national sports commission.

- Security warnings -

The news media declared Acapulco Mexico's murder capital last year, as it racked up 834 of them in what was a record-breaking year for homicides in the country.

But tournament director Raul Zurutuza is tenaciously upbeat: "It's a growing tournament, with a bright future," he said, brushing aside questions on whether nervous sponsors could pull out.

"We have long-term contracts with our sponsors."

Players love the tournament, with its laid-back vibe, exuberant crowds and scenic setting.

Last year, they voted it the best tournament on the ATP-500 tour.

American player Kevin King, ranked 173rd in the world, played here for the first time this year.

He said he felt "100-percent safe" -- even if the ATP sent players an email ahead of time warning them to take extra security precautions.

"I asked others players, and they told me it was safe," the 27-year-old, who was knocked out in the qualifiers, said.

Fans have the same concerns.

"We never go to the city center. We head straight to the highway after the last match," said Crispin, an 82-year-old retiree who came from Mexico City with his daughter.

Jose Luis and Fabiola, fellow Mexico City residents, were staying in their nephew's apartment. Jose Luis said they had to cross a "dark and dangerous" neighborhood to get there from the stadium.

"We cross our fingers every night," he said.