Are we seeing a Federer-Nadal-Djokovic style rivalry in darts? Who is the best right now? Why do players 'waste' a throw? After commentating on a dramatic UK Open, Paul Nicholson discusses all this and much more.
In his latest Sporting Life column, major winner and leading pundit Paul Nicholson shares his observations and analysis from an unforgettable 'FA Cup of Darts', which not only provided a plethora of thrilling matches and incredible performances, but also threw up a number of talking points.
The Asset then concludes with a preview of Thursday night's Premier League Darts in Liverpool, including his weekly treble, although he's careful not to offend Glen Durrant this time!
It was a fabulous UK Open weekend and even though we saw plenty of shocks and surprises as always in this ‘lottery’ style event, it ultimately ended with two of the very best players in the world vying for the title in a tremendous final.
I think you could tell from Michael’s celebrations against Gerwyn Price how much he really needed that winning feeling back again after his trophyless start to the season and the manner of his success was well worth the wait.
He’s been working harder this year than he ever has throughout his career due to changing his darts after the World Championship and he did say back then that it would take him two or three months to return to that irresistible zone.
Sure enough, just over two months down the line he’s fulfilled his promise and when you look at his incredible statistics and performances from almost all of his matches in Minehead, who are we to argue that he’s the best in the world?
Yes he had a scare against Jason Lowe but how many former winners of this event haven’t had one or two along the way? I can’t recall any that blitzed through every single game at a canter.
It was another great instalment of this rivalry and, when you consider they also contested the climax of the Players Championship Finals back in November, who’s to say we won’t see them collide in more blockbuster finals this year.
As well as Michael played all weekend, his best performances came after surviving an almighty scare against Jason Lowe, who cost himself a chance at a match dart in the deciding leg when missing a big number.
Had he managed to claim a famous win, the whole narrative regarding MVG would be completely different, perhaps even suggesting a crisis point in his career, but it’s fine margins like this that makes sport so fascinating.
As it turned out Michael held himself together very well in a game where he didn’t play his best and that’s what all champions have to do from time to time.
MVG followed this up by posting a 108 average against James Wade and two of 110 in thumping wins over Rob Cross and Daryl Gurney but he also enjoyed his fair share of fortune against Price, who missed 12 darts at doubles in four successive legs which wiped out his 7-5 lead and ultimately changed the complexion of the final.
Blitzing matches by a wide margin with a huge average – like Michael did in three of his matches across the weekend but also many times throughout his career – does build confidence but it’s consistently grinding out the close games which grow character in a different way.
It makes you believe you can win any kind of game. You can’t always just beat everyone with phenomenal talent. Sometimes you can do it with spirit, heart and belief.
There would have been no moment in either match where he thought he was going to lose, but that mindset is the experience of coming through many similar encounters.
If he goes on to collect a lot more titles this season, we might be talking about the Jason Lowe match as a key turning point.
Gerwyn Price is an incredible competitor but he’s also a human being and if he didn’t struggle in those moments then he wouldn’t be!
There’s no doubt he’ll be furious with himself when he looks back on all those missed doubles when it really mattered but he’s got to take it on the chin and move on because these things happen in tournaments.
Considering the amount of psychological battles he’s come through on the oche stemming from the crowd and media, Price is probably better equipped than most to bounce back strongly.
He’s also got to take the positives from how he manages to challenge MVG on such a regular basis, whether it’s on the floor, the European Tour or on television.
Price has now proved he’s up there with Peter Wright and Gary Anderson in terms of knowing how to live with Van Gerwen when he’s playing at the top of his game.
I think it also gets lost how magnanimous he is in defeat because there are other players who would have given a wet lettuce handshake and stayed at the side of the stage in a grump during the presentation, a bit like I did during the World Cup final when I lost with Simon Whitlock against Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis!
Instead, Price was able to have wonderful photos with Michael to show he’s a fantastic sportsman.
Peter Wright isn’t playing poorly at the minute by any means but it’s easy for us to say that the top two in the world are Michael van Gerwen and Gerwyn Price because they’ve been gracing more latter stages of tournaments.
However, we’re now in an era where there’s more players vying for the mantle of ‘best player right now’ than ever before and that’s great for the sport.
All three will have fans and analysts in their corner during debates like these - regardless of the massive lead MVG has built up in the Order of Merit - and I believe we’re now in a golden era of darts much like in tennis with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as well as the other world class players behind them.
There’s not a huge gap between these players and that’s what makes this season so intriguing and we really could see the majors and European Tour events spread out across more players than ever.
In last week’s column I boldly predicted there would be three nine-darters in total and one in every room, so I wasn’t far off!
Michael van Gerwen obviously hit one on the Main Stage a day after Jonny Clayton’s perfect leg in Red’s Bar – which I was lucky enough to commentate on with Chris Murphy - while we almost got a couple in the stage 3-8 room as well.
Steve Brown was level at 5-5 in his game with Michael Barnard when missing double 12 for a nine-darter in the deciding leg, and Ryan Searle came agonisingly close too.
Years ago, the prospect of achieving perfection was seen as this really rare thing but now there’s so many players believing they can do it.
Sometimes you get that feeling it’s going to happen, as you might have been able to tell from my commentary.
Jonny had been averaging over 100 in many games during the tournament and giving himself plenty of opportunities to get to the finishing point of a nine-darter. On this occasion his seventh dart was so perfect I just knew it was going and at that point decided to pitch the commentary with an air of inevitability.
It was a fabulous moment for everyone present in Red’s Bar.
Anyone who watched Jonny Clayton’s quarter-final victory may have noticed him committing a cardinal sin when carelessly throwing his last dart of a visit at the board, almost resigned to the belief that his opponent Jamie Hughes would make no mistake with three in hand at a double.
His reckless single one – after failing to hit the trebles required to take out 124 – left him an awkward 85 but he’d then get another chance after Hughes failed to finish him off. Despite not seizing his reprieve on his next visit, Clayton eventually got over the line after more heartbreak for his opponent.
Nevertheless, I don’t know why anyone ever petulantly throws any dart away and whenever I see it happen, it makes my blood boil.
If you’re still in the leg and the match then you’re still in with a chance – you have no idea how your opponent will cope with the pressure.
Gerwyn Price doesn’t throw darts away like he used to but I’ve also seen Rob Cross do it so many times in the Premier League this season with his last dart.
Most of the time he hasn’t been given another shot but that’s not the point. Please, please, please everyone - stop doing this!
If, for example, you’re left on nine with your last dart in hand and petulantly throw it at the board and end up on three instead of concentrating to leave yourself eight for your next visit, you could be costing yourself a leg by having to go and hit another single again.
I don’t ever remember doing this as I pride myself in giving every dart full concentration. I’ve had a few lazy darts but they had every intention with them – not just mindlessly flinging them at the board with petulance.
If anyone I coached acted like this then I’d tell them to never do it again. It’s the equivalent of just missing a four foot putt in golf and then wafting your putter at your next attempt and needlessly missing again.
It should have cost Jonny and although it didn’t, I sincerely hope that he – and anyone who watched the incident – will learn from it when a similar situation happens in the future.
My personal highlight from commentating on the outer boards at the weekend was Chris Dobey v Krzysztof Ratajski, which has to go down as the match of the tournament and arguably the game of the season so far.
It wasn’t just the fact it went all the way to a deciding leg, with Dobey winning it on a fantastic 91 checkout on the bullseye, but the 105 averages we saw from both players and their quality of finishing.
It’s the kind of game you rarely see, especially from rising stars rather than those at the very top of the sport. They started at the top of their game, maintained their averages pretty much throughout the entire 19 legs and finished with a bang.
I was also happy to see Jelle Klaasen get to a major quarter-final for the first time in many years and what he lacks in conventional nature with his throw, he makes up for in belief and practice.
During his run, he beat Gary Anderson 10-9 and thrashed Steve West 10-1, which was also surprising given the manner of the scoreline.
Willie O’Connor was also involved in his fair share of drama after almost blowing a 7-0 lead against Dave Chisnall and then managed to lose 10-9 against Daryl Gurney despite racing 7-1 in front!
As well as the fairytale stories, there was also some nightmares, and Jason Lowe’s comeback from 4-1 down to beat Adrian Lewis 10-4 was a prime example.
Lowe played phenomenally well with an average over 100 but as for where Lewis stands with his game right now, we can put a big fat question mark on it.
He doesn’t look particularly energetic when he’s playing darts at this point in time and without wanting to cause any offence – because it’s certainly not meant that way – I think he needs to lose some weight.
I love Adrian to bits because he’s such a massive world talent waiting to pop again, but his body language is downtrodden, and his complexion worries me too.
Maybe over the past couple of years he’s had too many negative influences around him and too much going on in the practice room and away from the game. Maybe he needs a fresh start to get back to challenging for major titles once more.
If you look at the lifestyles of the top guys like Michael van Gerwen and Gerwyn Price, as well as Rob Cross with his weight loss, they are all making positive choices that Adrian can hopefully learn from.
I seriously want him to get back to the top six because he’s box office every day of the week.
As I mentioned in reference to Michael van Gerwen earlier, it’s the close games that build character and although you do need some fortune sometimes Daryl Gurney will have come away from the weekend with renewed belief that he belongs at the top.
SuperChin came through three last-leg deciders on his way to the semi-finals and survived match darts in both victories over Keegan Brown and William O’Connor, who led him 7-1 before a remarkable comeback.
I applaud the hard work he’s put in over the past couple of weeks after a poor start to the season, and it’s clear to see his release of the dart and rhythm is so much better now.
A high-quality performance like the one he put in against Peter Wright in the quarter-finals was on the cards and this could be just the start of his season revival.
I’m really happy for him because there were plenty of analysts like me who thought this year could be a slippery slope for him, but this shows how quickly things can be turned around if you put the correct work in.
If he can maintain this, he will certainly be a real threat for Pro Tour and European Tour titles before the next majors.
Glen Durrant must have spent his long train journey to Exeter last week reading a lot of articles, previews and tips ahead of his ‘upset’ victory over Gerwyn Price in the Premier League and clearly took great satisfaction in proving myself and Wayne Mardle wrong!
The difficulty we have as analysts is picking a winner when we generally like all of the players, including Glen who I have massive respect for.
We don’t have crystal balls so we have to draw our predictions on statistics, form, head-to-head records, body language, technique improvements and so many more factors behind the scenes to give our readers the best possible insight.
When I played Dennis Priestly in the last 16 of the World Championship in 2009, Eric Bristow wrote me off and I remember thinking “OK, that’s probably the right call actually because I’m a qualifier and he’s a seed. But let’s prove him wrong!”
I didn’t lose any sleep over it but I managed to do just that by winning 4-2 from being two sets down.
It’s not a personal jibe, I just genuinely thought Gerwyn would have too much for him but when he comes out and proves me wrong with that kind of performance, he goes up in my estimation because he uses something I wrote as motivation.
He didn’t whinge about it at the time and send me a nasty reply – he just looked at it and responded in the best way possible on the oche with his ridiculous mental strength.
There’s a steely determination under his skin and there’s certainly more to come, especially because he knows time isn’t on his side and will use every source of motivation that he can to make hay at this time in his career.
Michael Smith 15/8 v Peter Wright 1/1, draw 3/1
Michael Smith may have got knocked out of the UK Open early, but he can still take so much credit from how he played in his 10-9 defeat to Rob Cross. It doesn’t change the fact he’s playing well, and so is Peter Wright despite being unable to go far in Minehead. They’ve also beaten each other once this season, with Wright winning the Masters final and Smith getting a measure of revenge in the Belgian Darts Championship so it’s very difficult to call. It has all the makings of a match that will go to the final leg but Smith does have ‘home’ advantage playing in Liverpool and that could help.
Daryl Gurney 7/4 v Glen Durrant 11/10, draw 3/1
I’m going to try and keep my words about Glen to a minimum this week! If you’d asked me to call this game seven days ago I would have gone for a Durrant win but Gurney had such a good weekend at the UK Open. However, Glen may be a tiny bit fresher when it comes to Thursday having not put in such a shift in Minehead and his superior doubling this season could be the telling factor.
Gerwyn Price 2/1 v Michael van Gerwen 10/11, draw 3/1
The broadcasters will be rubbing their hands together with this UK Open final rematch falling as soon as Thursday night. Gerwyn will be fired up for revenge and should he inflict MVG’s third defeat of the season, the table will look very interesting. Price is currently in fifth spot, just a point behind third-placed MVG, so he could really do with a win, even at this relatively early stage of the season. Will van Gerwen play with the darts he used in Exeter or the ones he won the UK Open with? He surely has to continue with the latter but I can’t split these guys and it would not shock me to see a draw.
Rob Cross 4/5 v Stephen Bunting 9/4, draw 3/1
I think Rob Cross is definitely going in the right direction now after a stuttering start to the season where the sketchy legs ruined the glimpses of brilliance we saw. He’s beginning to maintain those good legs and make the lesser ones better so those averages are going up as are the performances – like we saw in his victory over Stephen Bunting at the UK Open. Cross has got to see this as a must-win match to avoid being dragged into the relegation battle and instead challenge for the play-offs. He’s never lost in four matches to Stephen, who may be affected my some mental scarring. The Liverpool crowd will get behind their man but Rob may have too much.
Gary Anderson 11/8 v Nathan Aspinall 11/8, draw 3/1
We didn’t see much of Nathan Aspinall in his UK Open defence because he got the worst possible draw against Michael van Gerwen in the fourth round. He didn’t play badly at all, with MVG averaging 105 in a 10-8 victory, so he’ll be fully recharged and ready to go again in the Premier League. I watched a lot of Gary Anderson at the weekend and you can tell there are certain parts of his game that aren’t there at the moment. There are technical issues with his throw and the darts are going in at funny angles so I’m going for Nathan, who has been more consistent.
Treble: Aspinall (-1.5 legs), Cross and Smith to win at 11.3/1