Hamilton (Bermuda) (AFP)

Skipper Jimmy Spithill is gearing up for "one hell of a fight" when he leads Oracle Team USA in defense of the America's Cup on Saturday against a New Zealand team out to expunge the bitter memory of 2013.

"I think you've got two of the best teams in the world going head to head in a real heavyweight battle," Spithill said on Friday, as he and Kiwi helmsman Peter Burling met the press on the eve of the 35th edition of yachting's venerable competition.

"I'm expecting it's going to be one hell of a fight."

Four years ago on San Francisco Bay, Spithill brought Team USA roaring back from a 1-8 deficit to beat Emirates Team New Zealand 9-8 in one of the greatest comebacks in sport.

Team New Zealand have since undergone a near-total overhaul, with 26-year-old rising star Burling taking center stage.

Burling, a gold medalist at last year's Rio Olympics, has steered New Zealand through the treacherous waters of challenger qualifying, including the team's return from a frightening capsize during the semi-finals.

"We definitely feel like we're a lot harder team after the racing we have had," Burling says. "We definitely feel like we're a lot tougher coming into this than we were a few weeks ago."

But Team USA go into the best-to-seven series with a distinct advantage, including one bonus point gained from topping the qualifying round-robin.

Australia's Spithill also played up the local support the US team -- backed by tech billionaire Larry Ellison -- are receiving in Bermuda, where the racing will unfold on the Great Sound over the next two weekends -- and beyond through June 27 if necessary.

It's a space-age edition of a competition that began in 1851 -- when the schooner America defeated the best of the British fleet in a race around the Isle of Wight and the America's Cup was born.

The latest generation of twin-hulled America's Cup catamarans feature towering, 78-foot fixed-wing sails and can reach speeds of more than 50 miles per hour (80.5 km/h) as they rise above the water, virtually flying on their hydrofoils.

This year New Zealand have come up with a novel way to power the sophisticated hydraulic system, using "cyclors" on bike-style stations rather than traditional "grinders" using arm power to turn winches.

- Consequences -

While technology will play a key role, racing acumen will also be tested.

"We're expecting obviously, very aggressive, very, very tight racing," Spithill said. "There's a reason both teams are here at this point. It'll be close.

"You'll see us pushing," Spithill said. But recalling the Kiwi race capsize and Oracle's two capsizes in training he noted that pushing too hard "can have consequences".

All the variables mean no one can afford to look too far ahead, Spithill said.

"You look at it from last time and clearly for them there's some unfinished business and for us we'd like to get out there and get number three," he said. "But to be quite honest, all we're really focusing on is one race at a time."

Agence France-Presse

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