The 2022 Cazoo Grand Slam of Darts gets under way this weekend and our Chris Hammer brings you his group-by-group preview and tournament tips for the Sky Sports-televised major.
1pt Michael Smith to win the Grand Slam of Darts at 12/1 (General)
1pt each-way Dave Chisnall to win the Grand Slam of Darts at 20/1 (General, 1/2 1,2)
1pt Aspinall and Humphries to win their groups at 6.21/1 (Ladbrokes)
1pt Martin Schindler to qualify from Group D at evens (Sky Bet, Coral)
Only six different players have won the Grand Slam of Darts in its 15 previous stagings and just three of them have a chance of doing it again this year; Gerwyn Price, Michael van Gerwen and Raymond van Barneveld.
But perhaps an even more eye-opening observation is the fact that just five of the 32-player field have ever reached this final.
Sure, four of the 13 former finalists - including Phil Taylor - have either retired or don't have PDC Tour cards anymore but three other giants in Gary Anderson, James Wade and Jose de Sousa featured in two of the last four finals!
To have such big-name absentees, especially when they are all ranked in the world's top 11, did breath more fire into the debate about the tournament's qualification criteria but out of this trio, only Wade really had an axe to grind having won the last Players Championship event of the season.
In fact, he was one of six Pro Tour winners, including Adrian Lewis, to miss out and you could argue too many spots are instead allocated to the last-ditch Grand Slam qualifier, which saw Ritchie Edhouse, Raymond van Barneveld, Adam Gawlas, Alan Soutar, Martin Schindler, Luke Woodhouse, Mensur Suljovic and Jermaine Wattimena book their places in Wolverhampton despite largely disappointing seasons.
This should have a 'Champion of Champions' vibe only - but I guess that's a debate for another column.
As it is, there should still be more than enough quality on show to create another week of high drama, particularly in the knockout phase.
Some say the short format of the group stage is as dicey for the big names as the first round of the double-start World Grand Prix but ultimately it does allow them one slip up - or possibly even two in some unusual cases - so you would expect the vast majority of the big guns to advance.
That's when the cream tends to rise to the top and only one of the previous winners was a complete and utter curveball - when Scott Waites came from 8-0 down to stun Wade 16-12 in a quite remarkable 2011 final and give the BDO it's one and only champion.
In this preview I'll look at each group in turn with seasonal statistics for every player, courtesy of darts statistician and fellow Sporting Life writer Carl Fletcher (@CarlyFletch) and his Darts Tracker (@DartsTracker).
Two of the three Grand Slam winners taking part in this year's edition have ended up in the same group but I think it's fair to say only one of them has a realistic chance of lifting the trophy once again.
Gerwyn Price is chasing his fourth title in five years and must clearly feel positive vibes every time he turns up at the Aldersley Leisure Village. He's won on all three occasions when the tournament has been staged here (2018, 2019, 2021) and only lost two of his 21 matches overall - both of which obviously occurred in the groups.
The Iceman will be frustrated at winning 'just' two televised events this year - the unranked World Series of Darts Finals and the New Zealand Darts Masters - but this is the right time and place for him to rediscover his best form, with the World Championship just around the corner.
That said, his last TV appearance was a shock 6-4 defeat in the opening round of the European Championship to Rowby John Rodriguez and although he impressively won a Players Championship event last weekend to take his overall season tally to four, I think there's been enough vulnerability from him to go against the favourite in this group.
Dave Chisnall, who gave him a run for his money at the World Matchplay earlier this year, beat Price in a Players Championship semi-final en route to his second title of the season last month and he's won 13 of his 19 matches since then, averaging over 100 on nine of those occasions.
His early exit at the World Grand Prix was a setback but he would have gone further than the European Championship quarter-finals had he not found Chris Dobey in such inspired form.
One of Chizzy's six defeats in major finals occurred at the 2013 Grand Slam of Darts, when Phil Taylor edged him out 16-13 but eight years on, I think he has every chance of going on a great run and maybe breaking that major duck.
His first match against Raymond van Barneveld, who overcame Michael van Gerwen 16-14 in a thrilling final back in 2012, will be key but if he hits the ground running, he can progress as group winner and go on to mount a genuine title challenge.
This is probably a group where you want to take on the group favourite, especially when Simon Whitlock and Mensur Suljovic are both available at bigger than 2/1 to top it.
Although Danny Noppert has undeniably enjoyed a much better season with two titles including the UK Open, his form has dipped of late and has only averaged above 100 once in his last 16 matches, losing seven of them.
He's fortunate to be in a group with two players who haven't set the pulses races from a results or performance perspective all year - apart from when Whitlock combined with Damon Heta to win the World Cup - while Asian Championship winner Christian Perez shouldn't cause many issues.
That said, Whitlock and Suljovic have the major pedigree to pull out a troublesome performance in any format without much warning - especially over nine legs - but trying to pick out which one is a coin toss. I'll give the edge to Suljovic purely because he came through the Grand Slam qualifier and may feel in a slightly better place.
There are only really two groups of people in the darts community on social media that really annoy me. The first are those who mock Michael Smith every time he loses a major final (Bizarrely, as I've literally just typed those words, his entrance music has just come on a random mix playlist on Spotify. I didn't realise phones could watch what I type as well as listen to me. Anyways...) and the second I'll get to later on.
This calendar year Bully Boy has lost three more of them - the World Championship, the UK Open and the recent European Championship - to take his career collection of major runners-up trophies to eight but you have to admire the sporting way he handles each occasion as well offering a real sense of calm perspective during his interviews.
He must wonder what he's done wrong to suffer so much pain in major finals but I think it's important not to dwell on the negatives of such agonising setbacks when a career-defining moment is on the line.
After all, virtually every other player on the circuit would snap your hand off if you offered them three big runners-up cheques and we can't forget how well he played to get that far on so many occasions. In addition to that, he's won five other tournaments this season, including the televised US Masters against Michael van Gerwen at Madison Square Garden, so that door to his maiden major is definitely hanging on its last hinge.
My heart thinks he'll fittingly kick it off at the World Championship but he's probably got a better chance at the Ally Pally if he has the experience of winning one before then - and why not at the Grand Slam?
Neither Smith nor Joe Cullen should have any problems getting through this group in any order and they could well end up meeting again in the quarter-finals if they beat their respective last-16 opponents from Group D.
If you want some value in the group winner betting then you're probably best off going with the Rockstar, who did win one of their two Premier League meetings earlier this year, but when it comes to the longer format, Smith has the greater form, quality and confidence to challenge for honours.
As for Lisa Ashton, she may have won the Women's Series Order of Merit but her form hasn't been too great recently and she'll need to produce her very best if she's to pick up a first victory on this stage in her fourth appearance.
Martin Schindler is one of the most frustrating players on the circuit. Bags of talent but time and time again he seems to get flustered and nervous on the televised stages and apart from the World Cup, he's hardly ever won a match in majors.
The German has never got out of the groups in three previous Grand Slam appearances and has failed to go beyond the second round of any major except the UK Open, when many of the early rounds are played away from the main stage.
In fact, he's lost 10 of his 16 opening-round matches in majors and seven of his nine round-robin games in the Grand Slam.
It's a crying shame really because he's enjoyed some great runs on the European Tour and the Pro Tour this season and lost a Players Championship final to Michael van Gerwen back in March - so goodness knows what it is about the TV cameras rolling?
I'm not building a compelling case for Schindler to qualify from a group which includes two multiple event winners this season in Rob Cross and Dirk van Duijvenbode but he has beaten both players before and certainly has the game to do it again in such a short format.
In theory, this could be the ideal tournament to get a few morale-boosting wins under his belt which will then stand him in good stead for the future and at even money to qualify, I'll take that chance.
Dirk van Duijvenbode's performances have been more explosive and eye-catching than Rob Cross this season so I'll go for him to be the most likely group winner.
Now it's time to mention the other set of darts fans that annoy me. The ones who seem to take delight in Fallon Sherrock losing and 'not being the best female player anymore'. Usually these groups are the same people.
They despise the attention she gets and the supposed 'preferential treatment' but let's get one thing straight; Sherrock never asked for World Series invites and never asks Sky Sports to wax lyrical about her. She didn't even ask me to colour the Group E graphic in pink.
She earned all that (even my colour choice) for her proven track record of history-making feats under pressure on the biggest TV stages. None of those wins in the World Championship were flukes or by virtue of her opponents not turning up, while her run to last year's Grand Slam of Darts quarter-final was equally impressive before bowing out with an average of almost 100 over 29 legs against Peter Wright. When/if Lisa Ashton or Beau Greaves can emulate or exceed what Sherrock has done on TV against the leading men, they will do earn the same kind of attention.
Sherrock's exploits have helped the women's game break barriers and that will benefit the likes of Greaves in the coming years.
So why is it so funny when Greaves knocks her out of a World Championship qualification spot? Why is it so funny to see her struggle and prevent Sky Sports from using her in the build-up coverage for the Ally Pally? If anything she's a victim of her own success and I do feel her difficult season won't have been helped by the knowledge that a lot of fans are ready to jump on her for any defeat. She may not admit it but trying to back up her hype in the World Series and Women's Series would have been a completely different pressure to when an underdog at the Ally Pally, where everyone was rooting for her to win.
So, what of her chances in Wolverhampton? Maybe there's less pressure and expectation for what is now effectively her World Championship having finished third behind Ashton and Greaves in the Women's Series.
Prior to the aforementioned 16-13 defeat to Wright in last year's quarter-finals, she averaged over 90 in all three group matches, beating Mike De Decker and Gabriel Clemens, before doing the same in a 10-5 demolition of Mensur Suljovic.
This year's World Series wasn't good from a results perspective and it also forced her absence from some Women's Series events that ultimately proved costly but these short format matches always give her a fighting chance. I reckon she can beat Alan Soutar but she'll need an off day from Peter Wright or Nathan Aspinall to stand a chance of another dream run.
As for the group winner, I fancy Aspinall to come out on top having enjoyed a highly-encouraging run of form in the majors this season, reaching the World Matchplay quarter-finals and the World Grand Prix final. He's visibly enjoying the game again after his injury problems and will be relishing the chance to come out all guns blazing in front of the Wolverhampton crowd.
Wright has been very inconsistent this year and his defeat to Ross Smith at the European Championship summed it up; storming into an 8-3 lead only to lose 10-8. I'd say he's more vulnerable to losing to Sherrock or Soutar than Aspinall.
Jonny Clayton and Damon Heta really should both progress from this group without too much bother so the big question is who will come out on top.
I was very tempted to turn my group winner double of Aspinall and Humphries into a tasty treble by throwing in Heta due to Jonny Clayton being a vulnerable favourite but he continues to disappoint on the major televised stage.
I backed the Aussie, who has the third highest average in all competitions this season, to win the recent European Championship but he suffered a third successive first-round exit in majors (World Matchplay & World Grand Prix being the others) after a 6-2 defeat to Vincent van der Voort.
He seemingly struggles to transfer his formidable displays on the floor into the majors - apart from the World Cup with Simon Whitlock - while its water of a ducks back for Clayton even though he's not been at his best this year.
The Ferret is yet to win any title in 2022 so he'll be eager to remind everyone - including himself - of what damage he's capable of causing.
Michael van Gerwen is marginal favourite ahead of Gerwyn Price to win a fourth Grand Slam title but he's never reached the final since the tournament left Wolverhampton Civic Hall in 2018.
Van Gerwen's haul of eight titles is comfortably more than anyone else and three of those were the Premier League, World Matchplay and World Grand Prix but a shock defeat to Chris Dobey in round one of last month's European Championship will give his Group G opponents - and those in the knockout stages - a little comfort.
Ross Smith is his only real threat in regards to topping the table and it'll be interesting to see Smudge's level of performance after upsetting the odds to land his maiden major at the European Championship.
Smith averaged over 100 in three of his five matches in Dortmund, including a memorable final with Michael Smith, and if he can produce this standard of play on a regular basis then there's no reason why the quarter-finals or better aren't beyond him next week.
Luke Humphries seemingly became everyone's ante-post tip for the World Championship several months ago when he was winning European Tour events left right and centre - yet a Northern Irish youngster who was largely unknown at the time is now favourite to top his Grand Slam of Darts group!
That speaks volumes about how far Josh Rock has come in such a short space of time and his recent first taste of televised experience at the European Championship will give him that extra confidence ahead of his Grand Slam bow.
The 21-year-old's seasonal stats speak for themselves but he finally used his scoring power to title-winning effect as he beat Humphries in a Players Championship final towards the end of October - and that came just a few days after reaching his maiden final against Dave Chisnall.
That also means this is the only group consisting of four different title winners this season, with Scott Williams managing to earn his back in June despite not having a PDC Tour card! He qualified for this event by virtue of topping the Challenge Tour Order of Merit, which also earns him a spot on the PDC Tour next season.
Williams isn't expect to challenge for top spot in what should be a three-way tussle between Rock, Humphries and Ryan Searle - even though the latter hasn't enjoyed the best of seasons by his standards.
As impressive as Rock has been, I think Humphries is being slightly underestimated here.
His titles might have dried up after landing four of them between April and July, but his levels have still been impressive and boasts a lot more experience of the big stage - which could be key if they play each other with a place in the knockout stages on the line.
He beat Searle en route to the European Championship quarter-finals, where he came up short against eventual runner-up Michael Smith and he'll fancy his chances of another fine run that will raise the spirits of all those who backed him for world glory several months ago.