The holiday seasons commences this weekend with the opening night of the Professional Darts Corporation world championships taking place at Alexandra Palace in London. From Friday through to New Year’s Day, seventy-two men representing 20 countries will be whittled away until one name becomes 2013’s first world champion. Whatever their identity, it will be something of a surprise – for this is the first PDC tournament in years in which there is no overwhelming favourite.
The reason: Phil Taylor is not the dominant force of previous years. He remains the best player in the world, illustrated by four ‘major’ victories in 2012, but ‘The Power’ has unusually been unable to secure back to back televised tournament victories this year. He has lost his sense of invincibility, many of the players believe they can beat him, and, for once, the bookies think that he is more likely to lose the tournament than to win it.
Indeed, it has been a peculiar twelve months at the sharp end of the sport. The other four major tournaments were each won by a different player, and a total of eight darters have contested finals – although not the 2012 world championship finalists Adrian Lewis and Andy Hamilton, or the form player of the previous year, Gary Anderson. The result is a 2013 world championship which is virtually impossible to predict.
In the top quarter, Taylor should reach the last 16 with minimum fuss. There, however, he may face Robert Thornton, the Scot who has beaten him twice on TV this year, including in the final of the UK Open. At 50-1the bookies clearly don’t give The Thorn much of a chance overall, but he has the temperament and the game to consign Taylor to an early exit for the third year running (and the accent to ensure that few overseas viewers can understand a word of any subsequent interview). Should Taylor slip up, Andy Hamilton and John Part both have a knack of quietly building momentum during tournaments, and Terry Jenkins is a class player still capable of high quality darts.
Quarter two contains two of the other 2012 victors – Simon Whitlock, and a renascent Raymond van Barneveld. Both have pedigree at Ally Pally, but Dave Chisnall and Gary Anderson are amongst the players in the way of a quarter final clash. Despite his welcome recent victory in the Grand Slam of darts, Barneveld looks less likely than the Australian to battle his way out of this quarter, and having reached three finals in 2012, Whitlock looks a good bet to reach at least the semi-final here.
The highlight of the whole tournament could turn out to be a quarter-final clash between current world champion Adrian Lewis, and the player of 2012, 23-year old Dutchman Michael van Gerwen. As second and seventh seeds, they are due to meet on 29 December, but Lewis in particular looks vulnerable – he may face Kevin Painter in round 3, and with class acts such as Ronnie Baxter and Dennis Priestley also in this section, nothing is certain. (Priestley is making a welcome return to the tournament after failing to qualify last year. One bookie has him at 1000-1 for the tournament, which seems both a little disrespectful to a world champion, and a little stupid bearing in mind superb recent form away from the television). Van Gerwen’s victory over Taylor at the Grand Slam was probably the finest performance of the year so far, and as a result it is difficult to see him not progressing to at least the semi-final.
If the first three quarters of the draw are difficult to predict, the fourth is designed to make Nostradamus turn in his grave. Wes Newton, Kim Huybrechts, Justin Pipe, Mervyn King and Dean Winstanley have all reached semi-finals or better on TV in the last few months, and will rightfully all fancy their chances of a repeat in North London. And despite being out of sorts recently, a kind draw in the first two rounds may be exactly what number 3 seed James Wade needs to find the form that takes him all the way to his first World Championship final.
The scene is set for a feast of sporting action. Some tasty tungsten will need to be tossed to match the excitement of last year – which was generally accepted as the greatest tournament since the big split twenty years ago. It promises, however, to be a fascinating fifteen days of darts, not least because the most open world championship that the PDC has staged will make fools out of all of those who try to predict the outcome.
My predictions for the semi-finals are Terry Jenkins v Simon Whitlock and Michael van Gerwen v Dean Winstanley. Clearly I’ll be wrong.