By Noel Randewich
SAN FRANCISCO, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Oracle Team USA won Sunday's first scheduled America's Cup race, doggedly refusing to give Emirates Team New Zealand the final victory it needs to clinch the trophy, and stoking hopes that it may make a comeback that last week looked all but impossible.
An increasingly formidable Oracle had the edge at Sunday's starting gun, then pushed New Zealand toward the course boundary line before rounding the first mark. It used this advantageous position to open a lead that the Kiwis were unable to close, despite closing to within a boat length on the third leg.
With both teams struggling to find wind on San Francisco Bay, Oracle finished 23 second ahead in the relatively slow race. A second matchup, which Oracle must win, is scheduled for Sunday.
After struggling for much of the regatta's final series, the team owned by Oracle Corp. co-founder Larry Ellison has built momentum, refusing since Thursday to let the Kiwis win the one race that would give them the Cup.
Uncooperative weather conditions on the bay wreaked havoc on the race schedule last week and most recently forced the postponement of two races scheduled for Saturday.
New Zealand dominated the early matches of the final, which began Sept. 7, and appeared poised to easily reclaim the trophy they lost in 2003. But after Oracle made changes to its boat and improved its teamwork, the two teams now appear remarkably even.
In the best-of-17 series, New Zealand now has an 8-4 advantage over Oracle. Racing is scheduled to continue every day until there is a winner.