It has been another rugged day on the courts for Bill Sweeney, the head tennis pro at the Acapulco Princess. Now, at sundown, showered and dressed in white loafers, white slacks and a black and white silky shirt open to the chest he is relaxing in his suite, sipping Mexican champagne. The suite—a $l,000-a-week spread with a view of the ocean out front, the mountains behind and his courts below, and with a bathtub the size of some swimming pools—is provided to Sweeney free of charge by the Princess management. Later, when Sweeney and friends dine at one of the hotel's numerous restaurants, his signature on the check will be payment enough. Rod Laver should have it so good.
Not that life for Sweeney is all silky shirts and champagne. Tennis at the Princess starts at seven in the morning and continues until 10 at night, and for much of that time Sweeney can be found on the premises in his neatly pressed whites, giving a lesson to an anonymous vacationer or perhaps a Johnny Carson, or filling in a fourth for doubles. He is a practical teacher who realizes that no two people are constructed the same way, that you cannot expect a 55-year-old woman to bend her knees for a low volley as eagerly as a 17-year-old boy. Nor is he a badgerer. After all, virtually everyone he teaches is in Acapulco for fun, not to become a tennis star, and so Sweeney makes a lesson enjoyable.
A less appealing aspect of his job is that of El Director de Tennis, as a sign outside his office reads. Arranging games and times for guests to play is a constant hassle. "A fellow will come up and tell me he's an A player at his club back home," says Sweeney. "Another says he's only fair. I match the two and of course the fair player turns out to be much better and is bored to death." For this reason it is better for the serious tennis player to bring his own partner with him. The demand for the hotel's courts is so great that they are filled virtually all day. The only time a guest can be sure of space is outdoors between one and four in the afternoon when the sun is so hot even lizards take cover.
Bill Sweeney is 53 years old, not that you would know it to look at him. He is tall, broad-shouldered, thin-waisted. tanned and only slightly graying. He is from Medford, Mass. but his accent reveals his New England origin only occasionally, as when he uses a phrase like "box of conflicts," an interesting image until you realize he was saying cornflakes. Sweeney was a good hockey player and a better tennis player at Medford High in the '30s and he won many small Eastern tournaments before going into the Army in World War II. One day on maneuvers in North Carolina in 1942, Sweeney and three other men were riding in a truck when it tipped over and exploded. Only Sweeney survived. The tendons in his right shoulder were so badly torn that future tennis became impossible. Even today Sweeney has little strength in his right hand and his arm aches when it is cold, a condition he never experiences in Acapulco.
February 19, 1973
Discharged from the service, Sweeney tried an assortment of jobs, including that of a correction officer at a state prison in Massachusetts ("I hated it," he says. "I might as well have been a convict"). One day a doctor suggested he try playing tennis left-handed. "You have another arm," the doctor said. "It's the same size as the right, so use it." It took Sweeney about three years but at the end of that time he was good enough to become a professional. "I knew I was too old to go to the top as a player," he says. Instead, Sweeney became the pro at York Harbor in Maine. In the years since he has taught at an assortment of clubs ranging from New York City to Grand Bahama Island, which is where he was when the Princess Hotel summoned him to Acapulco.
Sweeney's indoor tennis palace is worth the wait it usually requires to book a court. The surface is Sportface (as is that of the outdoor courts), a smooth carpet that guarantees a perfect bounce. The lighting is excellent although periodically the fuses blow and darkness descends on the customers, who are paying $12 an hour or $16 if receiving instruction from Sweeney. At either end of the hall is a spectator area decorated with an assortment of live Mexican plants, brightly colored lawn furniture and umbrellas to create an outdoor atmosphere. It is, in short, an excellent setting for the game.
The Princess is also an excellent setting for hedonism. Room prices range from $76 to $175 a day, modified American plan, but there is quite a bit for the money. The grounds are sprinkled with swimming pools, bars, bamboo huts and palm trees, some with loudspeakers strapped to the trunks, from which floats soft music. People lie around on mats reading paperbacks and spreading oil on their faces, sometimes sipping exotic drinks out of coconuts or pineapples. You can ride a toboggan slide down a man-made mountain and fall six feet into a saltwater pool, or swim through a waterfall into a bar with underwater bar stools. There are two 18-hole golf courses to one side of the hotel, a beach and an ocean to the other, but the undertow can be strong and sharks not unknown. At night well-placed lights accent the blue of the pools, the green of the palms, the whitecaps in the ocean. This and the music, the drinks and the balmy breezes make the real world seem dangerously insignificant.
Down the beach from the hotel the shoreline ends abruptly, cut off by rocks over which tiny crabs scurry and by brown hills covered with cactus. There is a wooden shack built on pilings above the high-water mark in which someone may have once lived and perhaps still does. Standing there, with your back to the Princess, it is easy to imagine what the land looked like years ago. That was nice, too.