SAN FRANCISCO -- This could be the greatest day in America's Cup history.
After three weeks of some of the most dramatic, intense and riveting sail racing, it all comes down to one final race.
No matter who wins it, the story will be epic. It already is.
Larry Ellison's Oracle Team USA, the defending champions who were "staring down the barrel of a gun" last week, one loss from elimination, tied the regatta with their seventh straight win on Tuesday. If Oracle wins the final race, the victory will cap one of the greatest comebacks in sports history. If Emirates Team New Zealand manages to halt Oracle's delirious momentum and finally win, the drawn-out agony of the Kiwis will be over and the trophy will return to Auckland.
"If you're not blown away by this, check your pulse," said America's Cup expert Jack Griffin.
"Never before in the history of the America's Cup has it been so close," Regatta Director Iain Murray said Tuesday.
But the America's Cup has proved itself to be as unpredictable as the wind itself, and if it blows too hard, a race that has been anticipated from the South Pacific to San Francisco will have to wait another day. Wednesday's wind is expected to go "from fresh to frightening," Murray said, but he hopes conditions will be ripe at 1:15 p.m. for a grand finale.
The monumental showdown comes after Ellison and his America's Cup organizers seemed to have set a course toward oblivion, with the event marred for months by unmet expectations, "told-you-so" politicians, a tragic capsize, a cheating scandal and the public relations nightmare of the home crowd rooting for the other team. Oracle even started the competition with a two-point penalty, which meant they'd need to win 11 races before New Zealand wins nine. With the comeback so improbable, so heroic, Griffin couldn't help but quip, "If Larry Ellison was insufferable before this ..."
Some conspiracy theorists said they wouldn't put it past the software billionaire to have somehow orchestrated this redemption story. When asked if such a scenario was impossible, Bill Brown, 60, who lives in Hawaii but was in town to watch the races Tuesday, said, "Heavens no. That's what he's all about. If he can buy a Hawaiian island ..."
For all the cynics, however, these last few exhilarating days of racing have minted countless new sailing fans. Real, live American ones finally started turning up on Tuesday in the thousands, a group that was hard to find among the New Zealand flags that blanketed the America's Cup venues for the past few weeks.
"It's actually happening! I thought: Wouldn't it be a miracle if we could pull this off? And here we are, down to the last one," said Jay Conners, 49, a tile setter from Richmond who waved a huge American flag as Oracle crossed the finish line first for the second time Tuesday. "I feel if I don't come back tomorrow, I might jinx them."
Valentina Wallace, 58, of San Francisco, has been showing up each day with an icon of the Virgin Mary in her purse. "I pray, Mother Mary, please today give great waves to push Jimmy (that's Oracle skipper Jimmy Spithill) in front."
For the Kiwis, however, the losses are excruciating, the wait interminable.
It's "destroying" Kiwi Sharron Price, who has been watching the competition from San Francisco for days. "I can't watch it. I can't watch it."
Both skippers, the Oracle's brash Spithill and New Zealand's stoic Dean Barker, say they're ready for Wednesday's final match.
"I think we've got it in us," Spithill told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "We've come back from a very, very deep hole. The boys have worked very hard. We want this. We're going to work hard tonight and come out ready to fight tomorrow."
After's Tuesday back-to-back wins by Oracle that included a collision of the 72-foot catamarans at the starting line in the first race and a mind-blowing, overtaking romp in the second, Wednesday is winner-take-all.
"It's going to be obviously a tough race," Barker said. "Both teams are equally hungry to win this thing. We'll go out there as best as we possibly can and fight all the way to the end."
Not since 1983, when the Australians came back from a 3-1 deficit to beat Dennis Conner's Liberty and break the 132-year American stranglehold on the cup, has the regatta been so close. Back then, the entire country of Australia was so glued to the final match at 3-3 that the prime minister gave them special dispensation to celebrate.
"Any boss who sacks anyone for not turning up today is a bum," Prime Minister Bob Hawke said at the time.
Ellison, himself, played hooky Tuesday, backing out on the keynote address at Oracle Open World, where 60,000 of his fans gathered at the Moscone Center. Wednesday, when the historic America's Cup final showdown begins in San Francisco Bay, Ellison will surely pardon anyone who chooses sailing over software.
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409.