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America's Cup: Team New Zealand on ropes after Oracle USA comeback

By Paul Armstrong, CNN
updated 4:57 AM EDT, Wed September 25, 2013
Oracle Team USA,skippered by James Spithill,celebrates after leveling the series with Emirates Team New Zealand.
Oracle Team USA,skippered by James Spithill,celebrates after leveling the series with Emirates Team New Zealand.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oracle Team USA fights back to tie series 8-8 after being 8-1 down
  • Their backer, billionaire Larry Ellison, bailed from Oracle conference to see crew
  • Journalist Paul Hobbs: Result greeted with despair in New Zealand
  • The America's Cup series will be decided in one final race on Wednesday

(CNN) -- For sailing fans, boxing references don't immediately spring to mind when describing the thrills and spills of their sport -- even if it is the biggest race of all: The America's Cup.

At one stage Oracle Team USA were flat on the canvas facing the referee's count as they went 8-1 down in this year's competition against a dominant Emirates Team New Zealand.

Read more: Miracle on the water still possible

Then suddenly it was "rope-a-dope" on the high seas. This year's hosts of the 163-year-old race had come to their senses -- with a little help along the way from a British Olympic legend -- staggered to their feet, then struck back to level the series at 8-8. While there's no suggestion this was a deliberate ploy to take the sting out of their opponents by taking a beating first, as Muhammad Ali famously did against George Foreman, the boxing great would have approved all the same.

Even if you're not a sailing fan it's hard to beat this race for drama.

"This is as exciting as #sailing gets, ever. 8-8," CNN.com Sports Editor Ben Wyatt posted on Twitter.

Larry Ellison, the billionaire technology titan who bankrolls the U.S. team, even bailed from his keynote address at Oracle's annual conference on Tuesday to greet his crew in San Francisco Bay.

Plaudits

The team's exploits have put this event in the spotlight like never before, with stars from other sports taking to Twitter to heap praise on Jimmy Spithill's crew.

"Incredible comeback by the oracleteamusa boys in the @americascup marked by 7 straight victories ..." tweeted IndyCar racer JR Hildebrand.

America's Cup 101
The sailors who race the America's Cup
America's Cup trophy on display

Fellow driver Dario Franchitti posted: "Fantastic recovery by @OracleTeamUSA @JSpithill and the boys!!!"

It was an altogether different vibe on the other side of the world where the America's Cup is the next best thing for New Zealanders after Rugby Union and the beloved All Blacks.

Auckland-based sports journalist Guy Heveldt, made a cheeky reference on Twitter to the "outside help" employed on the Team USA boat: "A Kiwi, an Aussie and an Englishman walk into a bar... And walk out with the America's Cup!" He was of course referring to the likes of skipper Spithill, an Australian, British Olympic sailing champ Ben Ainslie and Simon Daubney, a New Zealander.

'Massacre'

But others struck a more sombre tone, intent on penning obituaries for Dean Barker's team, even before Wednesday's winner-takes-all decider.

"This is a massacre. I hope the country does not tear Barker apart. But I fear it will happen. This could be worse than the public blood-letting post Rugby World Cup defeats," New Zealand sports broadcaster, Tony Veitch, posted on Facebook.

"We've been sitting on match point for over a week. There's real heartbreak and despair here. Hard to know where this will go," TVNZ reporter Paul Hobbs told CNN. "This was meant to be a Disney finish -- a happy ending. Now it's turned into a Stephen King novel -- a horror show."

"Emirates Team New Zealand aren't just battling for the America's Cup now. They may be fighting for their very existence," wrote Paul Lewis in the New Zealand Herald. He suggested the team's CEO, Grant Dalton, and main backer, Matteo de Nora may walk if they do lose.

Lewis added that two lost campaigns in recent years "raises the issues in sponsors' minds of throwing good money after bad."

It was all too much for fans in New Zealand.
It was all too much for fans in New Zealand.

And expensive it is -- Ellison spent an estimated US$100 million on winning the famous old trophy, known as the "Auld Mug."

"But (Darth) Vadar likely poured money and effort into the Death Star. People cheered when that blew up, too," observed San Francisco-based journalist Joe Eskenazi sardonically.

Lost faith

With a race to go, the American comeback has left most people in New Zealand and beyond very nervous -- even a former prime minister.

"Hard to know what to say: Team New Zealand 8, Oracle 8 at America's Cup in San Francisco. All hangs on next race," tweeted Helen Clark, who was premier in Wellington between 1999 and 2008.

"Looks like New Zealand is about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory after losing another race this morning in the #AmericasCup," posted Australian television presenter Lisa Wilkinson.

Ominously, New Zealand bookmakers appear to have lost faith in their crew. The TAB has reduced its odds on a win for its boat as more people start to place bets on an American win.

Even with the increased potential payout for a New Zealand victory "no-one is interested" in betting on the Kiwis, bookmaker Kieren McAnulty said, in quotes carried by stuff.co.nz.

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