Roger Federer will end the year tantalizingly short of his 100th career title after he was forced to bow to “the young prince’’ Alexander Zverev at the ATP Finals.
The 37-year-old Federer, whose 99 titles are second only to the 109 of Jimmy Connors, started the day’s first semi-final as favourite.
But it was German Zverev who reveled in the big match atmosphere at a packed O2 Arena to win 7-5 7-6(5).
On Sunday, the 21-year-old will chase the biggest title of his fledgling career when he takes on either world number one Novak Djokovic or South Africa’s Kevin Anderson.
The tousle-haired Zverev is the first German to reach the final of the season-ender since Boris Becker lost to Pete Sampras in 1996.
Saturday’s clash between the Swiss winner of 20 Grand Slam titles and youngster was tipped to lead the sport into a brave new era.
This will be once the holy trinity of Federer, Djokovic and Rafael Nadal depart the stage.
After 11 games without so much as a break point it was Federer who surprisingly blinked first.
Zverev curled a superb running forehand pass down the line to get to 0-30 on the Federer serve.
He was then gifted two points and the set as the second seed’s forehand malfunctioned.
Federer was not about to be ushered off one of his favorite stages without a fight though and a rapier-like backhand pass gave him the early break in the second set.
But Zverev hit back immediately to cancel out the advantage.
The German, winner of more matches than any other player on Tour this year, had his opponent in trouble when Federer served at 3-4.
But the Swiss reeled off four points to stay on level terms in the set.
Chants of “Let’s Go Roger, Let’s Go” reverberated around the darkened arena as the second set tiebreak began.
There were even disapproval as Zverev stopped a rally when trailing 3-4 because a ball boy had dropped a ball.
There were then gasps of despair from the Federer diehards when their man got a little too delicate with an attempted drop volley at 4-5 to hand Zverev two match points.
Federer saved one but Zverev would not be denied, belting away a backhand drive volley to end the contest.