WELLINGTON, New Zealand — The years must have mellowed Jimmy Spithill.
The usually feisty Australian sailor, master of the psychological ploy and the trash-talking style Aussies refer to as “sledging,” was a model of sportsmanship and diplomacy Tuesday after the ninth race of the America’s Cup match in Auckland.
Defender Team New Zealand came from behind to win the race and take a 6-3 lead in the first-to-seven-win series, needing to win only one race Wednesday to dismiss the challenge of Italy’s Luna Rossa and retain the oldest trophy in sports.
Spithill, known as pit bull for his tenacity, is co-helmsman of the Italian boat and the circumstances after race nine were custom made for one of his gambits to place all pressure on his opponent.
In 2013, Spithill helmed the Oracle Team USA catamaran that trailed Team New Zealand 8-1 in a best-of-17 race series in San Francisco. In the news conference after New Zealand had reached match point, Spithill famously highlighted what an upset it would be if Team New Zealand lost from such a commanding position.
Having planted the seed of doubt in the Kiwis’ minds, he went on to win the next eight races to retain the America’s Cup 9-8 in one of the greatest comebacks in professional sports.
There was interest Tuesday in seeing whether Spithill again would attempt to sew uncertainty in the minds of the Team New Zealand crew. Instead, he was magnanimous and reflective.
He opened a news conference with effusive praise for Team New Zealand. He made no effort to try and find fault.
“The scoreline doesn’t lie,” Spithill said, pointing to Team New Zealand helmsman Peter Burling. “These guys won the only race of the day and the way I’ve been brought up … is you always pay respects to the competitor.
“I’ve had some awesome battles with these guys over the years and I think there’s enormous respect between the sailing teams. We enjoy the fight, we live to fight another day and we look forward to getting out there (Wednesday).”
Team New Zealand was far from triumphant. It had a chance to end to match on Tuesday but the scheduled second race of the day was abandoned because of a shifting breeze which made it impossible to set a true course.
Burling and New Zealand skipper Glen Ashby stressed that there’s still a job to be done, another race day and no time to take anything for granted.
“I think as Jimmy (and co-helmsman Francesco Bruni) said before, we live to fight another day as well,” Ashby said. “We’ve all done a lot of regattas and championships over the years.
“We’re very much taking each day as it comes and it’s exciting to get out there and race again.”
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