Novak Djokovic broke down in tears as he addressed a 4,000 crowd after being knocked out of the first leg of his Adria Tour charity tournament.
Djokovic needed to record a straight-sets victory over Germany's Alexander Zverev in his final group game at his tennis complex in Belgrade, where a 4-0, 1-4, 4-2 success was not enough.
The result sent fellow Serb Filip Krajinovic into the final.
Krajinovic later lost to Austrian world number three Dominic Thiem 4-3 2-4 4-2 in the decider.
"I am just overwhelmed by emotion because this reminds me of my childhood," Djokovic said as the crowd gave him a standing ovation. "It's been an emotional few days and I want to thank everyone who made this possible.
"The important thing after this match is that we have one of our own in the final. I love you all and thank you so much for turning up."
Djokovic set up the tournament to help players get back to match fitness after several weeks without competition.
Players were split into two groups of eight and played each other in a round-robin format, with the two group leaders competing in a final.
Players needed four games to win a set, with a tie-break at 3-3, and matches were best of three sets.
The next leg takes place in Zadar, Croatia from Saturday but the tournament's third leg, scheduled for Montenegro, has been cancelled because Serbian citizens are banned from entering the country amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The final event is in Bosnia-Herzegovina in July.
Djokovic earlier made a winning return only to be upstaged by a ball boy.
The world number one was everywhere on the opening day of singles action at the exhibition series. It is his eponymous foundation which supports the series, the opening weekend of which took place at the tennis academy which bears his name and he was competing in the Novak Group.
The 33-year-old was well on the way to beating Victor Troicki in his first match of the day when his fellow Serb handed over his racket to a young court-side helper, who returned twice from a Djokovic serve before hitting a forehand winner at the net.
Troicki summoned the boy over and patted his shoulder, the latest example of the event's lack of social distancing, which allowed fans to sit side by side in the stands, attendants to collect towels and players to hug and shake hands.
The moment of levity done, Djokovic broke to love to complete a 4-1 4-1 win.
Several top 10 players are also competing in the Ultimate Tennis Showdown, an event created by Serena Williams' coach Patrick Mouratoglou in Nice, France.
Matches are being held without spectators.
Australian 20-year-old Alexei Popyrin beat France's Elliot Benchetrit in the opener.