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Winged victory

From geopolitics to tennis, from minerals to movies, Australia in recent years has been steadily gaining international respect. Now it has earned recognition for yet another accomplishment: world supremacy in sailing.

Australians waved their kangeroo flags in Newport this week, but it was America that after 132 years had its pocket picked. From what had seemed its permanent stand in the New York Yacht Club, the America's Cup was unbolted by an Australian crew that rode the wind to victory in an expensive yacht with a technological advantage: a winged keel.

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Difficult as it is for this year's valiant American crew to lose the cup for the first time ever, it is buoying for the Australians. And it is good for world yachting that finally there was a keenly competitive series of seven races.

It was in a land sport - tennis - that Australia in recent years had burst into international prominence. In 1950 under tennis czar Harry Hopman it began a remarkable string of 15 Davis Cup victories in 18 years. On the court Frank Sedgman, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, and later Rocket Rod Laver backboned the repeated capture of this Cup, symbol of world supremacy in amateur tennis.

While their serves and volleys were reported on the sports pages, Australia began gaining recognition elsewhere in American newspapers: first as the dominant nation of the southwest Pacific, later as the host to a mineral boom.

In the '70s Americans became aware of the high quality of Australian movies, emphasized two years ago when the splendid ''Gallipoli'' debuted in the US.

Now the Down Under excellence has surfaced in the design and sailing of graceful, 12-meter yachts. With skillful stewardship the American crew nearly prevailed, though their boat seemed generally slower; but in the end the Aussies triumphed.

What apparently made the difference was this year's major innovation in a yachting series that has seen many: wing-like protuberances on either side of the Australian keel. With crews increasingly evenly matched a major challenge is to gain the technological edge.

For the future it will not be enough for the Americans simply to catch up on design; the Australians can be expected to progress yet further. Thus for both sides it is back to the computers to design something even faster for the next series of races three years hence.

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