It was out of his hands. Kim Huybrechts had 15 darts to knock Phil Taylor out of the World Championship in the last 16. He couldn’t do it, he failed to even get a dart for the match. He never recovered, and like a thief in the night, The Power was gone. Now Taylor has survived a huge scare – he eventually triumphed 4-3 in sets – it’s hard to see past the 54-year-old notching a 17th world crown on Sunday night.
For most, a tournament gets tougher as it goes on, that isn’t the case with Taylor. He thrives on the longer format, able to maintain a staggering consistency while the rest wilt. His ability to build leg-on-leg pressure without relent, makes him fiendishly difficult to beat. Unlike a Michael van Gerwen, or an Adrian Lewis, Taylor rarely has poor legs, ensuring his opponents are nearly always under tremendous pressure to hit their checkouts. There is no respite.
His dominance of the set-play format hasn’t been quite as strong as that of his leg-play – he hasn’t lost a match in excess of 25 legs since his 16-14 loss at the 2010 Grand Slam to Steve Beaton – but it is still unprecedented.
On the 19 occasions where he progressed to the last four of the world championships, only three times has he not gone on to lift the title. Those blots on the CV came courtesy of a 6-1 smashing by Dennis Priestley at the first WDC World Championship in 1994, and defeats in final-set epics against John Part and Raymond van Barneveld in 2003 and 2007 respectively. The Power has also never lost a world semi-final.
So with the knowledge of Taylor’s supremacy in the latter rounds, if he is going to be beaten, the quarter-finals may be the last good chance to do it – a round which has brought his demise three times, most recently to Mark Webster in 2011.
Realistically, despite a successful season for Vincent van der Voort, there is little to suggest he can threaten to beat Taylor over a nine-set contest. The Dutchman’s power scoring may create chances, but his frailties on the doubles and lack of experience at the business end of TV tournaments, do little to convince me he can upstage The Power on the grandest stage. A set, possibly two, but a win would require an effort unlike any he has produced before. It’s hard to envisage a vulnerable Taylor – especially considering any concerns with his new darts would have been quelled after the Huybrechts match.
Of course, the calibre of the remaining participants will hopefully – in the interests of competition – prevent a cruise to the title, seen so often in many PDC World Championships in the late 90s and early 2000s. Since van Barneveld’s switch of codes in 2006, which sparked a mass exodus of players from the BDO, Taylor has won the title just three times out of eight. Age, of course plays a part, but the increase of serious challengers is undeniably the main factor.
Providing he beats van der Voort, a semi-final match with either van Barneveld or reigning BDO world champion Stephen Bunting will await. A clash with van Barneveld would see a battle of titans, but the striking truth is, despite his win over Taylor in this year’s Premier League, that has been his only TV victory over his adversary in the last six-and-a-half years. – a period which has seen his mental strength battered through, a result of countless defeats against Taylor. In addition, van Barneveld has not shown form capable of triumphing over 11 sets. He may have possessed bottle in spades to dump out Adrian Lewis on Tuesday evening, but his scoring inconsistency would surely be punished more severely by Taylor. Past scars and current indicators point firmly to the Stoke-on-Trent master prevailing in a match between the two.
Bunting is the dark horse in this event and the BDO world champion is three games away from becoming the first undisputed world darts champion in over 20 years – if only for a week. The 29-year-old has moved swiftly through, dispatching James Wade in the last 32 and then Michael Smith in the third round with a ton-topping average. Bunting has secured a TV win against Taylor this year, in a deciding leg at the European Championship. While he would still be an outsider if a contest between them arises, Bunting has the game, and is in the form to beat Taylor if he is not at his best. It would be a fresh and intriguing semi-final.
Gary Anderson and van Gerwen are favourites to win their quarter-final matches against Peter Wright and Robert Thornton, and the two have an edgy rivalry, stemming from van Gerwen’s victory here against Anderson 12 months ago. The Dutchman has had the best of their matches in 2014, with key wins from 3-1 down at Alexandra Palace last year, along with another close win in the Premier League semi-final. Both have achieved success against Taylor and either would pose a strong test over 13 sets.
Defending champion van Gerwen lost the 2013 final to Taylor 7-4 in sets, but could have assumed total control at 5-2 if not for a missed double. Taylor has also had the best of their most recent battles, bouncing back from van Gerwen’s wins in two TV finals in 2013, handing out a pummeling at the 2014 World Matchplay, almost reducing his opponent to tears. The Dutchman is playing himself into the tournament, with a convincing win over Terry Jenkins on Monday. Set-play helps his up-and-down game, allowing him peaks and troughs without causing irreversible damage. If he can tighten up on the doubles, he could topple Taylor, but judging on his patchy year he would be the underdog over a 13-set marathon.
Could Anderson be best placed to take the title from Taylor? His Players Championship win in Minehead, and improving play at Ally Pally puts him in with a genuine chance. He overpowered Taylor in the quarter-finals in Minehead, and his 7-3 sets win over The Power in the 2007 World Trophy is testament to his credentials over the long format. That match may have been seven years ago, but Anderson’s current consistency and temperament, is arguably as great as it has ever been. However, in 2011 where he looked primed to win the tournament, he fell at the final hurdle to Lewis. The glut of 180s and strong double-hitting the Scotsman is showing at the moment will make him tough to overcome. If he doesn’t buckle and produces at his very best, the match is in his hands. His scoring prowess will offer up enough chances, it is whether he can take them.
Much is telling in that the quest to make an impermeable case for someone to defeat Taylor is so tough. His improvements round-on-round are ominous, and his character to fight back against Huybrechts was a far cry from his loss to Michael Smith in the second round 12 months ago. The Power looks assured and composed, in contrast to the edgy and uneasy version we saw earlier in the year.
Few chances come to knock Phil Taylor out of a World Championship and if not noticed when they present themselves, like that they’re gone. We may only be at the quarter-finals, but it might already be too late…