If you came in after the first few games of any of Dominic Thiem’s matches last week in Acapulco, you might have thought the young Austrian had turned into the Marco Rubio of tennis. For those of you who are (blessedly) unfamiliar with the race for the Republican presidential nomination in the U.S., that means he was sweating through his shirt, his shorts, his socks, the grip on his racquet and maybe even his sneakers. After watching Thiem play three times, I began to wonder if he pre-soaked his clothes before each match.

But nothing—not the Mexican heat, not the 14 matches in three weeks, not the switch from clay to hard courts in Acapulco, not a tricky final-round opponent—could stop Thiem. He beat Bernard Tomic, 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-3, to win his second title in three weeks, push himself to a career-high No. 14 in the rankings and make a statement about his chances of reaching the World Tour Finals in November. Thiem is currently all the way up to No. 3 in the race to London, trailing only Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. His 18 match wins lead the ATP.

Thiem’s triumph was a fitting way to close out February, a month when the men’s tour received a much-needed injection of new blood. Alexander Zverev, 18, Taylor Fritz, 18, and Nick Kyrgios, 20, all turned heads and reached early-career milestones. But it was the 22-year-old Thiem, who is one or two steps farther along the learning curve than his younger tour-mates, who made the deepest and seemingly most lasting inroads.

Just as impressive as Thiem's titles is the fact that he beat Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer on clay this month. If we saw a faint glint of generational change in February, much of it came from these two matches. Thiem  followed those wins by beating a player of his own generation, Grigor Dimitrov, in straight sets in Acapulco, a tournament that Dimitrov won two years ago. Thiem's title there was both a crossover and a step up: His four previous tournament wins had come at 250-level events on clay; Acapulco was a 500 on hard courts.


“It was unbelievable,” Thiem said. “These three weeks have been amazing. Winning my first 500 title and first hard-court title, it was just perfect. It was how a final should be, between two young and up-and-coming players.”

We’ve spent the last month asking the same questions of Zverev, Fritz and Kyrgios: Are they “for real?" Are they the future? Each has strengths, but each has weaknesses—Fritz’s defense, Zverev’s emotional control, Kyrgios’ concentration—that need to be addressed. With Thiem, there are no glaring issues. He has the footspeed, the bomb serve (he hit 22 aces in the final) and the X-factor weapon in his one-handed backhand. Best of all this month, I thought, was his forehand. More controlling and reliable than ever, it allowed him to dictate even against his most highly-ranked opponents.


While Thiem's early friendship with Ernests Gulbis might have made you wonder about his motivation, it seems to be very much intact. From what I’ve seen, Thiem shows up for every match and doesn’t sulk when things don’t go his way. If Kyrgios is the bad-boy future of the ATP, Thiem is the friendly, humble, level-headed one. He may not be quotable, but his game—which can look like a smoother and more streamlined version of Stan Wawrinka’s—is watchable.

As anyone who has followed the men’s tour in recent years knows, there must be hedges and caveats when assessing any young player’s future. When Dimitrov beat Murray and won this tournament two years ago, he was in virtually the same position that Thiem is in now. So we’ll see: For the moment, the Thieminator's weapons—power serve, killer forehand, lethal backhand—would seem to make him better equipped for a long run at the top than Dimitrov’s more varied all-court style.

Moving up from No. 14 won’t be easy; Thiem will have quarterfinal points to defend in Miami next month, and there’s a lot of talent and even more experience packed into the Top 10 at the moment. But one thing we know after this month: Thiem is willing to sweat it out to get where he wants to go.


“Sweating it out” is not something that Sloane Stephens has always been known for doing. In the past, when it wasn’t her day, it really wasn’t her day, and she wouldn’t do much to turn things around. So far in 2016, though, that hasn’t been the case with the American. Stephens is 11-1 this year, with two titles in two months.

It definitely wasn’t the case in Acapulco last week. A few hours before Thiem beat Tomic, Stephens outlasted Dominika Cibulkova, 6-4, 4-6, 7-6 (5), in what will go down as one of the most entertaining and hard-fought WTA finals of 2016. The two ran each other all over the court for three hours and five minutes; the rapid-fire rallies and long games offered little respite for either woman.


There was something in the water—or at least in the air—in Acapulco that kept Stephens going when she normally might have wilted. She led by a set and a break before surrendering the second set, and she led the third-set tiebreaker 6-3 before finally winning it 7-5 on a forehand misfire from Cibulkova.

“I don’t think I’ve ever played in front of a crowd quite like this,” Stephens told the audience. “Thank you for letting me experience this in Acapulco, because it’s something I’ll remember forever.”

“I got a little bit better because of her,” Stephens said of Cibulkova, the 2014 Acapulco champion.

Could this win, in which Sloane took a challenge and overcame it, in which she survived her own nerves, be the start of a better, happier 2016 for her? She's working with a new coach in Kamau Murray, and sounds pleased with their progress.

“We had a great start to the year,” Stephens said on Saturday, “and I’m looking forward to keeping it going.”

As with Thiem, there are many reasons to be cautious. After her last tournament win, in Auckland in January, Sloane went out quickly in the first round at the Australian Open. But winning titles, whatever their significance, is a sign of progress, as is her ranking: Don’t look now, but Sloane has passed Madison Keys and is now the highest-ranked U.S. woman not named Williams.

Three years ago Stephens was seen as the Williams sisters’ heir apparent. Can she learn to deal with success this time around? On the trophy stand after her win, Sloane was briefly shocked by the sight of the sombrero that the Acapulco champions traditionally must don. But as it was lowered onto her head, she smiled. Hey, if the winner’s hat fits, you might as well wear it, right?