SAN FRANCISCO — A week ago Oracle Team USA skipper Jimmy Spithill was selling a comeback not many were buying.
Down by seven points to challenger Emirates Team New Zealand and facing near defeat, Spithill said through clenched teeth that he liked his position and the chance to orchestrate “one hell of a comeback.”
“I think the question is: Imagine if these guys lost from here?” he said. “What an upset that would be. They have almost got it in the bag.”
Unbelievably, defender Oracle has nearly punched its way out.
With another two victories Tuesday, the Americans are not only alive. They are on the precipice of the greatest comeback in 162 years of America’s Cup racing.
Trailing 8-1 in the first-to-nine series, Oracle has locked the contest at 8-8.
The U.S. team backed by Silicon Valley billionaire Larry Ellison has actually won nine of its last 11 races but was docked a two-race deficit at the regatta’s start for cheating in a warm-up race using smaller boats.
Wednesday, winds permitting, features a winner-take-all clash on San Francisco Bay in what has become at 19 days the longest America’s Cup since its inception in 1851. The race will be televised by NBC Sports Network beginning at 4 p.m. ET.
“It’s the most exciting day of all of our lives and we wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” said a beaming Spithill, the 34-year old hard-charging Australian who has Oracle back from the brink. “Mate, bring on tomorrow.”
No team has come back from multiple match points since John Bertrand’s Australia II reversed a 3-1 deficit in 1983 to win 4-3 and wrest the Cup from Dennis Conner’s Liberty, ending the longest international winning streak in sports history.
After numerous delays and postponements, Tuesday’s wind and tide conditions were ideal. In the opening race, New Zealand miscalculated its position in the prestart box and twice made contact with Oracle, which had the right of way. It resulted in two penalties that allowed the Americans to surge ahead to an insurmountable lead. They won by 27 seconds.
“It was just an absolute shocker,” New Zealand skipper Dean Barker said on TV of his poor decision-making at the start. “We tried to make a bit of a play, mix it up but we got ourselves in a really bad spot.”
In the second contest, the Kiwis won the start for the first time in several races but were overtaken due to some tactical mistakes and the suddenly superior American boat in the upwind leg, once their Achilles’ heel. Oracle trailed by 7 seconds at the second mark but blew past the Kiwis and crossed the finish line by a comfortable 54 seconds.