The courtside clock looked in need of a calendar, as a long day's journey into night churned on with no finish line in sight. Then Jo-Wilfried Tsonga bounced off the court to create closure with a final flick of the wrist.
Slipping behind the baseline, Tsonga regained his balance, looped a rainbow lob over Milos Raonic's head, and raced forward to conclude a tennis marathon with one final burst. The Frenchman deadened a forehand drop volley to convert his fourth match point and close a gripping, 6-3, 3-6, 25-23 triumph over Raonic that spanned three hours and 56 minutes. It started at noon London time, offered a near two hour and 40-minute rain delay with Tsonga holding a 2-1 third-set lead, finally ended about 6:49 p.m., and threatened to cover as much turf as the Olympic torch run.
While it wasn't quite the surreal saga that was John Isner's 70-68 fifth-set win over Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon two years ago—a three-day epic that obliterated tennis' longevity records—this battle of atomic servers escalated into a war of wills and will be remembered as a milestone match.
The dizzying third-set duel featured 257 points—Tsonga won exactly one more point in the decider (129 to 128)—escalating into the longest set in Olympic history. It shattered the record for longest men's singles set—Fernando Gonzalez defeated Taylor Dent, 6-4, 2-6, 16-14 in the 2004 Athens Games—and the longest overall Olympic set, breaking the prior record set by Canada's Carling Bassett-Seguso and Jill Hetherington's 7-6 (6), 5-7, 20-18 triumph over Argentina's Mercedes Paz and Gabriela Sabatini at the '88 Seoul Games.
The pockets of Tsonga's blue shorts were turned inside-out at times, making him look like a bankrupt man illustrating insolvency, but he refused to be broken in fighting off four break points in the final set. He erased three of them to hold for 3-2, then smacked a service winner to stave off the fourth in holding for 12-11. Raonic had more break-point chances in the match, but a stubborn Tsonga, who squandered match points in suffering a gut-wrenching French Open loss to Novak Djokovic last month, withstood seven of the eight break points he faced.
"We both really fought hard," a smiling Tsonga told NBC's Jon Wertheim after the match. "He served unbelievable. I was strong and I'm really happy to go through. It's good for confidence; not good for the body."
Spare a thought for the 21-year-old Raonic, who faced the challenge of serving from behind throughout the final set but represented his country with class and unwavering tenacity. In his Olympic debut, Raonic looked utterly unfazed by the moment. The Canadian unleashed his massive serve, slamming 74 winners—including 23 aces—while Tsonga cracked 60 winners, including 17 aces. Raonic saved the first match point with a rousing ace to hold for 16-all. Serving at 20-21, Raonic drilled a jarring body serve to save a second match point. Neither man was tested on serve for the next five games.
Tsonga leaned into a cross-court backhand pass to earn triple match point up 24-23. Raonic saved a third match point, but Tsonga dazzled after, turning defense into offense to end a match for the ages that concluded with both men sharing smiles and an embrace at net.