It was a bit earlier than 9pm on a sticky night time 11 months in the past at Alexandra Palace that Michael Smith threw the nine darts that may change his life for ever. Even now, throughout his quieter moments, he’ll go on YouTube and watch them again. The crescendo within the commentator Wayne Mardle’s voice. The thud of the ultimate double 12. The utter pandemonium within the crowd. The best adrenaline rush on earth. And, fairly merely, the second at which darts was perfected.
In that second, you didn’t should be Smith, or a Smith fan, and even very a lot of a darts fan, to understand the spine-tingling magnitude of what had simply occurred. It was an power and an electrical energy, an explosion of endorphins that transmitted itself all over the world. The video clip has been considered 25m occasions on X and 5m occasions on YouTube. The basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal featured it on his tv present. On 30 November, Smith was at St Helens city corridor to obtain the liberty of the borough.
A reminder, maybe, that even on this frenetic 12-month sport, a relentless treadmill that takes its high gamers from New South Wales to New York and just about all over the place in between, nothing actually cuts by like success on the world championship. That is the place careers are gilded, reputations made and damaged, desires fulfilled and desires crushed.
It’s 16 years because the Skilled Darts Company moved its flagship occasion from Purfleet in Essex to the Palace and although it might now most likely promote out the Nice Corridor a number of occasions over, there it has remained: one in every of this nation’s real heritage occasions, as dependable a staple of the festive season as Mariah Carey and the John Lewis advert.
So, how do you comply with perfection? For Smith, 2023 has been the tough second album. He stays the world No 1 on the PDC’s two-year rolling system, however on an inventory incorporating this 12 months’s outcomes alone, he can be fifteenth. He modified his darts provider in the summertime and has badly lacked rhythm and consistency since: second spherical of the European Championship, group stage of the Grand Slam, first spherical of the Gamers Championship Finals. The expertise and the starvation are clearly nonetheless there. However the aura is fading a bit.
Can he nonetheless win? In fact. That is the everlasting thriller of the match: in a packed calendar the place the highest performers are taking part in just about on a regular basis, the world championship is preceded by a three-week aggressive hiatus. Three weeks is a very long time in darts. Sufficient time to search out some type and sufficient time to lose it. Sufficient time to iron out errors and sufficient time to dwell on them.
Then there’s the distinctive and protracted rhythm of the match itself in a sport the place gamers are extra used to competing in a number of video games in a day. Assuming Smith wins his opening-night sport towards Kevin Doets or the flamboyant American Stowe Buntz on Friday – itself no assure – it is going to be 12 days earlier than his subsequent match. This may increasingly assist to clarify why no one has efficiently defended their title for eight years.
Not even the good Michael van Gerwen in his near-invincible prime might handle it. Such is the depth and breadth of capacity within the trendy sport, a sport during which just about anyone can beat anyone on their day. The age of dynasties is over. No person will dominate darts the best way Phil Taylor as soon as did. It’s a tribute to Van Gerwen’s genius – an intermittent genius today, however a genius all the identical – that he fleetingly bought shut. Whereas his high stage remains to be most likely nearly as good as anyone’s, Van Gerwen’s path to a fourth world title is beset with lethal mines.
The world No 18, Stephen Bunting, taking part in one of the best darts of his life, is a probable fourth-round opponent. The ruthlessly constant Danny Noppert or the prodigious 22-year-old Josh Rock await within the quarters. Whereas Van Gerwen nonetheless fancies himself because the clear favorite, will all the time again himself towards all comers, he has been shedding increasingly of those sorts of video games in recent times. By any regular commonplace, two main wins and two main finals can be a good haul for the 12 months. However Van Gerwen has by no means judged himself by regular requirements.
Smith and Van Gerwen are two of what’s a five-man group of favourites. Luke Humphries might be the best player in the world on type, having gained his first three main titles this 12 months. The 2021 winner, Gerwyn Price, has been taking part in a lot better this 12 months than his blended outcomes would recommend, however must develop higher methods for coping with a resolutely hostile crowd. And for all his detached type for a lot of the season, in long-format play below the very best strain, you may by no means rely out Peter Wright.
Beyond those five there are probably about eight more for whom you could build a cogent case: the World Matchplay champion, Nathan Aspinall; the quirky Rob Cross, Rock and Bunting; the hardy perennial James Wade; the irrepressible Gary Anderson; the timeless Jonny Clayton; the mercurial Dave Chisnall.
A fully fit Dirk van Duijvenbode would be a contender but he has struggled badly with a shoulder injury in recent months. Fallon Sherrock appears to be hitting some form at just the right time and has a winnable first-round game against the unpredictable Jermaine Wattimena. Watch out, too, for the 16-year-old prodigy Luke Littler, the new world youth champion, described by Taylor as the greatest talent he has seen at that age.
Being a professional darts player can be a pretty thankless existence. The schedule is brutal; the setbacks frequent and inexplicable; the bulk of your career is spent on motorways and in budget hotel rooms or scrapping for ranking points in deserted leisure centres in Barnsley or Hildesheim. But still they come: chasing the buzz of a big crowd, dreaming of conquering the Palace, striving above all for the moment of perfection that makes the whole journey worthwhile.