For years talk has abounded about the next generation of men's tennis; over which young contenders would emerge to challenge, and ultimately take over, following an era dominated by the three greatest players in history.
Many have tried and fallen short over the near-two decades of collective dominance by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer, but times are changing and the post-Big Three landscape has started to take shape over the past two years.
Federer, 41 in August and recovering from a second knee operation in less than a year, looks increasingly less likely with each passing month to return to the pinnacle of the game, while Nadal, 36 next month and in a perpetual battle with pain, has become more selective with his schedule than ever to extend his career. Djokovic, 35 in a few weeks and top of the world rankings, remains a stubborn bastion of the Big Three era but a chasing pack of hungry, young, and talented players are making ground.
That chasing pack has for the past few years been led by Russian world No 2 Daniil Medvedev, German world No 3 Alexander Zverev, and Greek world No 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas, but there appears to be a new sheriff in town and he goes by the name of Carlos Alcaraz.
The Spaniard, who turned 19 last week, continued his rapid rise by winning the Madrid Open on Sunday. It was his second Masters 1000 and fourth overall title this season from just seven tournaments played. As a result, Alcaraz has climbed to a career-high No 6 in the rankings.
Beyond the trophies and ranking points, though, has been the manner in which Alcaraz has carved through his opponents - and no one has been safe. Having beaten Tsitsipas twice en route to the Miami and Barcelona titles, Alcaraz created history in Madrid by defeating Nadal, Djokovic, and Zverev in successive rounds, becoming only the second player, and youngest ever, to beat three top-five players in a Masters event. He is also the youngest champion in Madrid Open history.
"Right now you are the best player in the world,” Zverev said to Alcaraz during the Madrid Open trophy ceremony, where the German was accepting his runners-up plate after getting thoroughly beaten in a 62-minute final.
“It is great for tennis that we have such a new superstar that is going to win so many Grand Slams, that is going to be world No 1 and I think is going to win this tournament many more times.”
Those are some lofty expectations to bestow upon a young player who 12 months ago was ranked No 120 and is still adjusting to the rarefied air of tennis' top tier. But Alcaraz has shown so far that he has the intelligence and temperament to justify the glowing praise and bold predictions from his peers. He most certainly has the talent.
Outclassing Zverev in Sunday's final was impressive, but even more telling was the way Alcaraz battled past Djokovic in the semi-final, maintaining his composure and high level to edge the world No 1 in a tense third-set tiebreak. Very few players are able to stare down Djokovic in pressure moments and not blink first.
Despite riding this sudden wave of success and developing an aura of invincibility, Alcaraz is saying all the right things to keep his feet firmly on the ground.
“I think that I have to improve everything still. I have always said that you can improve everything. You never reach a limit,” he said. “Look at Rafa, Djokovic, Federer, all of them improve and they have things to improve. That's why they are so good, and that's why they have been at the top for so long, because they don't stop. They keep on working and improving.
“That's what I want to do. I want to keep on progressing. I have really good shots. I don't say that I don't have them, but I know that I can improve them and they can be even better.”
Opting to sit out this week's Italian Open, Alcaraz will next be in action at Roland Garros, where he has been installed as second favourite, behind Nadal and ahead of Djokovic. Splitting two of the Big Three as a leading Grand Slam title contender speaks volumes of Alcaraz's newfound status in the game. The next step is converting predictions into major prizes, which given his current and sharp trajectory, will only be a matter of time.