The first week of the PDC World Darts Championship always lends itself to mediocrity as an arguably bloated field of 72 take to the Alexandra Palace oche for their preliminary and first round matches.
This year’s event has been no different, with those in the higher echelons showing they are still head and shoulders above many on the rest of the tour – at least on television anyway.
But darts is darts and there has still been a fair bit to whet the appetite over the opening few days, with some entertaining contests, the occasional shock, and the ever-improving standard of the international qualifiers. Two even progressed to the second round, booting out seeded players in the process!
Ten maximums from Max Hopp finally broke the defences of a battling Mervyn King to snatch an enthralling 3-2 win. The 18-year-old German’s power scoring regularly bruised the 10th seed – who was also suffering from a slipped disc – but an array of clutch checkouts from King helped to quell the pain, as he managed to keep his opponent at bay. But when the Masters finalist to seal the win in the fourth set, Hopp powered back, wrapping up the match with a stunning 161 finish.
In a match that could potentially decide his darting future, Wayne Jones fought valiantly in a high-quality match against former world finalist Dean Winstanley. Jones defied a poor year and two 136 checkouts from his adversary to go 2-1 up in sets. However, once the doubles deserted him, the match changed, Winstanley winning six of the last eight legs to win 3-2, and leave Jones’ career in the balance.
Michael van Gerwen’s bid to defend his world title began with a testing 3-1 victory over Joe Cullen on the opening night. After van Gerwen built a two-set lead, Cullen bounced back with some impressive finishing – almost sending the match to a decider – but the champion pinned double six for an 84 checkout to move through to the last 32.
Phil Taylor and Adrian Lewis recorded effortless 3-0 wins, notching up the first round’s two 100-plus averages. Five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld also signalled his intent, dismantling Rowby-John Rodriguez with sparkling 167 an 170 finishes. Last year’s runner-up Peter Wright was also watertight on the doubles, shutting out Gerywn Price 3-0.
All has not been right with Simon Whitlock for a while and his loss to Darren Webster was the culmination of a poor 12 months. With only a semi-final at the World Matchplay of note, Whitlock would have been hoping for a resurgence at the Ally Pally – a venue where he made the final in 2010, and reached the semis on two other occasions. It wasn’t to be as his doubles – once the highlight of his game – failed him and Webster held his nerve, banishing memories of his match against James Wade last year, where he missed multiple match darts. Whitlock’s Premier League spot could also now be in jeopardy, although those cynical would point to the TV contract with Australia’s Fox Sports and suggest, that despite his form, he is still a shoe-in. When all is considered, it’s only an exhibition event anyway.
A torrid year for Justin Pipe ended with a five-set defeat to Australia’s Laurence Ryder. The Taunton man’s quarter-final at the Masters was his only TV appearance past the last 32 all season, and a first-round exit at the worlds, will only accelerate his slipping ranking.
The two-year rolling ranking system has its merits but judging by Stuart Kellett’s performance, it may protect for too long. Boosted to 32nd seed following Richie Burnett’s absence, Kellett played abysmally, averaging a mere 73 as he fell ignominiously to German qualifier, Sascha Stein. The former BDO number one’s darts were a far cry from those that whitewashed Darryl Fitton at Lakeside in 2011. On the bright side, at least he no longer faces the prospect of a battering by van Gerwen after Christmas.
Iberian qualifier Cristo Reyes dealt the tournament a major shock on the first night, bundling out an admittedly struggling Wes Newton – but it didn’t happen without controversy. Newton fought back from a two-set deficit as the match went all the way to a deciding leg when Paul Hinks, the referee, forgot the rules. Instead of asking the players to throw for the bull to determine who would throw first in the final leg, he simply instructed to play on. Once aware he’d made a howler, he tried to rescue the situation by restarting the leg again, to the fury of Reyes in particular. The Spaniard managed to gather this emotions to snatch the win, and claim a result that after all the confusion, was probably just.
According to Barry Hearn, they are all darts fans, but from what I have seen in the past week I would beg to differ. I wrote an article about crowd trouble earlier in the week and the dangers of attracting an audience whose main priority was not to actually watch the show. Yet things got even worse during Hopp’s match against King, where a number of louts decided to start chanting “10 German bombers”. The PDC’s direction is clear, and to their credit, as a business, the product is booming. But if I was Hearn, I would be increasingly at the clientele the sport is attracting.
The darts resumes on 27 December with the second round. For me this is when the tournament really gets under way, with the first of the seeded clashes, and the start of the longer formats. The opening salvos are concluded, let’s begin the quest to crown a new world champion.