Picking the correct adjectives is essential when describing sport – labelling every significant moment “fantastic” or “great” just serves to devalue your lexicon. Very rarely do we see the stuff of fantasy that would equate to being fantastic, or an act of true greatness. We have to find ways of separating the highest tiers of brilliance in sport, or we cannot do them justice.
Last night Michael van Gerwen was fantastic. Last night Michael van Gerwen was great. Raymond van Barneveld fell barely short of both descriptors, yet he was still hammered 6-2 in the PDC World Championship semi-final by his ruthless Dutch counterpart.
Yes, van Gerwen’s romp was nearly 10 points shy of his imperfect – yes, imperfect – 123.40 world record average, but you cannot compare eight exhibition legs with eight of the hugest sets in darts. This semi-final showing was the best performance of all-time, beating a subjective honour previously bestowed upon Phil Taylor for his 7-1 thrashing of van Barneveld in the 2009 world final, where his average nudged 111.
Here comes the van Gerwen stats barrage: the highest ever average in a World Championship match 114.05 – almost three points superior to Taylor’s destruction of Shayne Burgess in 2002 –15 180s, 29 140s and a further cluster of big scores utilising the treble 19. Compared to van Barneveld’s two-out-of-three doubling, the 26-year-old was found wanting, but he still nailed more than half of his attempts. Oh, and he missed double 12 for a nine-darter too.
Barring Barney, the least enchanted by this darting wizardry was van Gerwen himself, who espoused the same brutal and commendable honesty he has for weeks. Some call it arrogance, that it may be, but we all know it’s what he’s thinking, and we’re thinking it too. Should he not win seven sets before Gary Anderson does and lift the Sid Waddell Trophy on Monday evening, the year will go down as a failure for Mighty Mike. Beating van Barneveld was another step towards that goal, the manner of it was just a happy little bonus, and something he won’t dwell on or coo over – the rest of us can do that.
Van Gerwen’s stunning second-half assault makes it easy to forget that for the first four sets this match was looking like a classic to end all classics. One constant of this famous rivalry has been van Barneveld’s feisty fight, a trait he has invariably brought to this contest even if it’s been sorely missing elsewhere – last year’s World Championship scalp is well-documented, but the less-talked about 2012 Grand Slam of Darts final is an exquisite example too.
Van Barneveld, seeking a first TV title in more than five years ran into a rampant young protagonist finally finding his feet in the PDC. Van Gerwen had blown away the field, including Phil Taylor, and was seeking a second PDC major to go with his first at the World Grand Prix a month prior, and he was the undeniable favourite to claim it.
But the elder Dutch boss hadn’t read the script. Clutch 180s and key finishes tormented a van Gerwen who just wanted to bulldoze, but he was unable too. Nerves crept in for van Barneveld near the end, but he banished them with a match-winning 11-darter against the throw to pinch the tournament 16-14. For four sets on Sunday we were seeing that same resolve, but in overload.
It was the best van Barneveld, a veteran of more than two decades and a winner of five world championships, had ever played on television, and it came because van Gerwen is the only man able to extract such darts from him. Not even Taylor could inspire Barney to this standard – in fact, after a while, he would rather quit than battle.
In terms of this match, van Gerwen started like a sloth, as van Barneveld cruised to the opening set 3-0 with a settling 107 and a gorgeous 131. All doubts surrounding which RvB would turn up following his long overdue scalp of tormenter Taylor 48 hours earlier diminished.
Red-hot Ray was in an even meaner mood after the break, sinking a never-in-doubt 160 to break – van Gerwen, who was waiting on 25, cast a slightly stunned look but was unperturbed. Then came the most crucial leg of the match, and had van Barneveld won it, he would have taken a commanding two-set lead. But he was never winning it, despite being on double 12 after 12 darts thrown.
Bish, bash, bosh. Triple 20, single 14, double 20 for MvG. A 12-darter, a break, a set back on throw and a dagger in the heart of his opponent. Van Barneveld positioned himself on the same double in the deciding fifth leg after four visits – once again, he never got a shot.
The bizarre was happening at Alexandra Palace. The averages were north of 110, the crowd were watching darts, and ‘Chase the Sun’ had been shunned for ‘Freed from Desire’.
Van Gerwen whizzed to the third set flinging yet more fire, but he was kept honest by his adversary, who pinned a routine 127 effortlessly on his way to levelling the scores after the Green Machine missed tops for a 94 that was, in the context of this match, a blink.
With no precedent for such mastery, one wondered whether the pummelling would eventually tell on somebody. It surely had to, and it did. Van Gerwen, somehow, got better while van Barneveld lost a couple of percentage points – but it was no more than that. MvG didn’t run riot for fun in the latter sets, he did so because he had to. The ageing Dutch master was nipping at his heels throughout, and even flirted at a comeback in the eighth set, before being savagely snuffed out.
A gutted van Barneveld oozed class in a beautifully miserable interview in the backroom after. He was devastated, not in awe. He couldn’t give a jot that he averaged 109 or played in the most mind-boggling match of all-time. Why give a valiant loss the time of the day when you’ve been crowned five times? Van Barneveld and van Gerwen have the same champion brain – there’s no substitute to this tournament and being successful in it.
It’s why van Barneveld has reached the semi-final at this event four times in the last five while generally being a pale shadow elsewhere. He doesn’t care about the rest. Victory in the Premier League was nice but it’s a mere career footnote.
For van Gerwen, oodles of expectation will be on him versus Anderson, who has staved off 11 World Championship challenges as the hunted – however, the 12th will be the Scot’s toughest by far. If van Gerwen has an outing remotely similar to the semi-final, Anderson will have to be more powerful and clinical than ever before. A rubbish cliché, granted, but it is true: if anyone can do it, he can.
The third and possibly deciding part of the Michael van Gerwen-Gary Anderson World Championship saga promises everything. The former won the first but invigorated the latter’s career in doing so, and Anderson repaid the favour 12 months’ later on his way to his first world title.
The darting world awaits a showdown usually only sports entertainment can provide. Buckle up.