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The eager underdog & the reluctant favorite. SAILING UNDER ORDERS

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`THE greatest mismatch since Tyson/Spinks.'' ``Saltwatergate.''

``David vs. Goliath in reverse.''

Next week's America's Cup race has been compared to the Concorde racing a hot-air balloon, or a sleek Porsche racing a top-heavy Suzuki Samurai down a winding, mountain road. But no matter. After a year-and-a-half, the battle between New Zealand's 133-foot monohull and American skipper Dennis Conner's 60-foot catamaran has at long last moved from the courtroom to the azure waters off Point Loma here.

``It's the strangest race in history, absolutely silly,'' says Michael Fay, the New Zealand millionaire who mounted the challenge after his team did well in its first America's Cup off Fremantle, Australia, last year. ``Everyone knows a race between a twin-hulled catamaran and a keeled yacht is no race at all,'' he adds, estimating the speed of the former as 20 percent faster by the laws of physics alone. Over the 40-mile course, that could add up to a 90-minute lead.

``Americans do not respond passively to a sneak attack,'' responds Conner, the skipper who lost the cup to Australia in 1983 and won it back for the San Diego Yacht Club last year.

``Sneak attack,'' according to Conner, was the unorthodox, preemptive challenge by the New Zealanders. It has forced the Americans into this year's individual runoff with the Kiwis, well before the SDYC's as-yet-unannounced international regatta in 1991, in the customary interval of three to four years.

``I've always believed that what is within the rules is fair,'' adds Conner, who was forced by a New York court to honor the interim challenge, but saw no rule binding him to race in a similar boat. ``When they decided to play hardball, so did we,'' says Peter Isler, navigator of Conner's Stars & Stripes.

No matter whom you agree or disagree with, most observers concede that the challenge has served to point up rather vague language in the race's governing document, written more than 100 years ago. Does the word ``match'' mean ``fair and equal'' boats of the same type, as the New Zealanders contend? Or does it mean simply ``contest,'' as the Americans say?

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