Michael van Gerwen looking to confirm darts dominance
Dutchman is the best in the business yet only has one world championship to his name
Michael van Gerwen is looking to double his world championship tally and confirm his status as the most dominant force in darts. Photograph: Getty/Nathan Stirk
Michael van Gerwen is arguably the most dominant sportsman in the world, yet he is not world champion of his own sport. That paradox dominates the buildup to the PDC World Championship, the festive jamboree that begins at Alexandra Palace on Thursday night. In the past 12 months the Dutchman has seen his own 2015 brilliance and raised it by winning a staggering 25 tournaments, including nine of the 10 that have been televised live. But it is three years since he won his only world title.
If these was any doubt how much the tournament means to him, it disappeared during his forlorn interview after he lost an epic third-round match to Raymond van Barneveld. Van Gerwen won 18 tournaments in 2015 but ended a staggering year on a crushing low. “I want to win this one,” he said. “I want to throw all the other titles in the bin for this one.” When he was asked: “What next for you?” a solemn Van Gerwen replied: “Not much.”
Three years without a world title are worth an aeon in Van Gerwen years. If he does not win this time, an oddity will start to look like something more serious. But Wayne Mardle, the Sky Sports commentator and four-time world championship semi-finalist, does not think there is a danger of Van Gerwen wanting it too much.
“He’s such an instinctive player and has a style that doesn’t allow him to tighten up – his brain works so quickly,” says Mardle. “I believe Michael likes being under pressure. The fun for him is the journey to get to the winning double. I don’t think he’ll be pent-up at only winning it once. He’s so dominant that he thinks if he plays well he wins. And I think he’s right.”
Whereas many of his tournament victories in 2015 were achieved in close matches, often courtesy of an exhilarating surge, most of his wins in 2016 have verged on the processional. He has a preposterous win percentage of 91, including 27 in a row going into his first-round match against Ross Snook or Kim Viljanen on Saturday, and has become such a name that this week the New York Times profiled “The Michael Jordan of darts”. In October, after a majestic 5-2 win over Gary Anderson in the World Grand Prix final, he received the highest praise from another sporting genius. “Michael and Usain Bolt are the two top boys in any sport worldwide,” said Ronnie O’Sullivan. “Van Gerwen is amazing. He’s unbelievable. I think he is the best sportsman on the planet of any sport and he’s even quicker than Usain Bolt.”
As if his fusion of mental strength and natural talent was not formidable enough, Van Gerwen has started to time his big scores and especially his big finishes to achieve maximum psychological damage. This was perfectly demonstrated in November’s Grand Slam semi-final: with Peter Wright waiting on 25 to lead for the first time in the match, Van Gerwen took out 139 in the blink of an eye. Wright, who would have a very different mantelpiece but for Van Gerwen, was broken in more ways than one. From 8-8, he won only two of the final 10 legs.
“He’s got that Phil Taylor-like mentality: ‘Oh yeah, this will hurt my opponent,’” says Mardle. “He so often takes out big finishes and then starts the next leg with a 180. And he does it so quickly that it puts your head in a spin.”
A few have tried gamesmanship against Van Gerwen this year, with no success, and Mardle thinks the best way to beat him is to follow the Van Barneveld template from a year ago. “With the format of sets rather than legs, it really is all about timing,” says Mardle. “You need to reverse the roles, basically, and take out big finishes when Michael is waiting on a double like Barney did last year.”
The focus on Van Gerwen is such that the reigning champion Gary Anderson, who is aiming to become only the third man after Taylor and Eric Bristow to win three in a row, can sit in the background – at least until Thursday night, when he plays Mark Frost in the third match of the tournament. “He’s slightly under the radar because Michael has been so good,” says Mardle. “He’s in the right half of the draw – all the other previous winners are in the top half. I certainly wouldn’t rule him out.”
Anderson, reluctant for so long to play in glasses because it might impede his throwing action, was left with no choice due to his worsening eyesight and has adjusted smoothly in the past two months. Everyone has their own preparation for the big one. At 56, Phil Taylor has reduced his schedule in an attempt to win a 17th world title. “I think Phil’s been playing OK,” says Mardle. “The ability is just as great but the consistency and composure are slightly lacking. Phil’s giving his opponents hope, whereas before he would beat you mentally long before the match was over.
“It’s the romantic in me, but I’d love Phil to retire on the spot if he won. Your last competitive dart is double 16, you become world champ for the 17th time and then you pack it in. How good would that be?”
Adrian Lewis, brilliant and erratic but always invigorated by Ally Pally, is scheduled to meet Taylor in what would be a monstrous quarter-final, though to get that far he will probably have to beat Van Barneveld, whose deceptively low ranking makes him a dangerous floater. “You’ve got to get the right seeding to become world champion,” says Mardle. “You need to be in the right half of the draw. Adrian has suffered because he’s dropped from No3 to No5.”
The reverse is also true. The ultra-consistent Wright, who is now world No3 and has a better draw as a result, may find that a good ranking perpetuates itself. James Wade, Dave Chisnall and the eccentric Austrian Mensur Suljovic make up the top eight. “Dave Chisnall, at 33-1, is a good each-way bet to reach the final,” says Mardle “If he can hit his doubles anywhere near to 40%, he’s got a great chance. There are so many people I’d love to see win it. There can only be one, so I’m going for the most likely: I think Michael will beat either Gary or Chizzy in the final.”
If he does, world darts domination will be complete.
The second quarter of the draw is the toughest. Only one of Phil Taylor, Adrian Lewis and Raymond van Barneveld can reach the semi-finals – and the reward for that is likely to be a match with Michael van Gerwen. In the bottom half, Gary Anderson and Peter Wright could meet in an all-Scotland semi-final. If all goes with seeding, the quarter-finals will be: Van Gerwen v Mensur Suljovic, Taylor v Lewis, Anderson v Dave Chisnall and Wright v James Wade.
Michael van Gerwen
The world No1 has won a staggering 25 trophies in 2016 and also broke the world record for the highest average. He looks unbeatable yet it is three years since his only world title.
Anderson, who has won the last two World Championships, is an understated genius who makes 180s seem effortless. Has had a mixed year but has become a master of peaking at Christmas.
Wright’s fluorescent hair and clothes are eye-catching but his game is far less flamboyant: he is an admirable model of consistency who routinely reaches the later stages of tournaments. Yet to win a major but reached the final of the worlds in 2014.
The 16-time world champion has played better in 2016 than results suggest, but the longer format of the worlds does not favour 56-year-olds. Will take heart from winning his last three matches against Van Gerwen and six of his last seven against Anderson.
Raymond van Barneveld
Van Barneveld’s reduced schedule, and consequently lower ranking, makes him a dangerous floater in every World Championship and usually guarantees a heavyweight clash in the last 16: this year it could be Adrian Lewis.
The William Hill World Darts Championship from December 15th – January 2nd will be shown live on Sky Sports Darts.