With the greatest ever darts player stepping off the oche and into retirement, you might say the way is clear for Michael van Gerwen to become the sport’s new poster boy.
But ‘Mighty Mike’ is already a mighty force in the world of bright shirts and Bullseyes and insists he’s been carving his own legacy despite Phil Taylor still basking in the limelight. The dynamic Dutchman is without doubt the best darts player in the world today. Leading the sport into a new era, with ‘The Power’ set to switch the lights off on his legendary career at the end of this season.
Van Gerwen’s compatriot Raymond van Barneveld who famously battled with Taylor for major honours during the early 2000’s, which catapulted the sport into the mainstream, is also a fading force – with Van Gerwen now the face of the new breed that also includes Adrian Lewis, Peter Wright and Gary Anderson. And it is with this new breed that Van Gerwen thinks today’s stars are taking the game to new heights.
“Even with Phil Taylor I’m making my own legacy,” Van Gerwen told Sport360° when asked whether he felt Taylor’s impending curtain call felt like an opportunity to strike out on his own.
The 28-year-old was speaking ahead of the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters – where he won the first three straight titles from 2013-15 and will be going for a fourth in five years tonight after overcoming Van Barneveld 10-5 last night at the Irish Village.
“I feel, with all the other players, we’re raising the game again to a different level. You cannot do that on your own, you need other players to play good against you.”
Mighty Mike is rarely short on confidence, but as brilliant as he’s been since bursting onto the scene in 2012, he’s humble when he insists he will “never” get close to “legend” Taylor’s 16 world titles.
“I’m never going to reach as many titles as him,” added the 28-year-old. “I think I’m going to be retired before I reach him. But who cares? I’m Michael Van Gerwen, I want to do something different. I’m playing well and I hope I can keep performing at this level.”
Taylor’s incredible record speaks for itself. He has won 216 professional tournaments, including 84 major titles and a record 16 World Championships – a haul that included eight consecutive crowns from 1995-2002. He has twice been nominated for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, finishing runner-up to AP McCoy in 2010 – the only darts player to finish inside the top three in the award’s 63-year history.
Mighty Mike’s own career is also pretty magnificent. The world number one has 23 major titles since his breakout year in 2013. He is the reigning world champion – although his two trophies is some way behind Taylor’s 16 – and arrived in Dubai on the back of retaining his Premier League Darts title following a stunning 11-10 triumph over Peter Wright in the final last Thursday – a third success and one which puts him in second place, three behind Taylor.
Having announced in January that 2017 would be his final season, Van Gerwen hopes The Power will still be flickering behind the scenes even after he pulls the plug. “He’s been great for the sport,” said Van Gerwen, the instantly recognisable green-shirted, bald Boxtel native. “What can you say about that man? He’s a legend. The only thing we can do is have respect for him and give him a lot of credit. I hope he stays in the game, doing some television or something.”
Taylor and Van Barneveld were darts’ early pioneers, helping to elevate the game from its smoke-filled dingy amateur setting of the British Darts Organisation (BDO) in the 1980s and into the modern era. Taylor left and was a founding member of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC) in 1992 – with the game’s popularity growing once Sky Sports became involved.
Darts is now a juggernaut. The total prizemoney on offer when Taylor won the inaugural World Championship in 1994 was £64,000 (Dh305,000), with The Power earning £16,000. The pool for next year’s 25th edition will be a staggering £1,800,000 (Dh8.5m) with the champion taking home £400,000. But although it’s now a money-spinning machine, Van Gerwen says he is comfortable with his and the sport’s growing popularity and all the add-ons that comes with. “You shouldn’t (feel under pressure). I enjoy it. Normally it’s the nice part, getting paid well. But there’s other things too like media requests, there’s kids watching so you have to act normal. There’s loads of other things you have to do outside of playing but it’s all one package.”
Although it doesn’t come with the gravitas of a world or Premier League title and isn’t a ranking event, the Darts Masters in Dubai is a tournament close to Van Gerwen’s heart – having won the stunning ‘Dallah’ three times. He was on course for a fourth last year before Gary Anderson fought back brilliantly from 8-4 down to win 11-9.
Gerwyn Price was a promising rugby player but admitted he failed to fulfill his true potential due to immaturity. A talent for darts has given him a “second chance” though and it is one he is determined to grasp.
Price only began playing in Friday night leagues with his mates socially, but the 32-year-old quickly realised he had something special. He entered and won several tournaments before being encouraged by fellow Welshman and darts player Barrie Bates to enter the Professional Darts Corporation’s (PDC) Qualifying School.
He did so in January 2014 and victory over Austrian Rowby-John Rodriguez in just his second event earned him a two-year tour card.
Since then his career has arrowed upwards, so much so that he is now ranked 17th in the world.
In March he finished runner-up at the UK Open to Peter Wright – with the pair two of the stars on show at the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters
Which gets underway today.
Not too many people are talented enough to excel in multiple sports. Not many people get a second chance either, and Price is glad he finally decided to harness his potential.
“I always played rugby and had the potential to probably go on and do better things in rugby and didn’t fulfil my potential, but that was my own fault,” said the Markham man who played for South Wales sides Neath and Cross Keys and even had a short stint at Glasgow Warriors.
“I wasn’t very professional. I was young and immature and missed the boat, but I’ve got a second chance now here playing darts and I’m not going to make the same mistake again.
“I’ve got to be professional, on my game and put the practice, effort and hours in and learn from past experiences, it doesn’t come easy.
“I was a fool to myself over the years. I didn’t take it that seriously but I think I’m a lot more dedicated now and rewards have come off the back of that.”
Price, a hooker in his rugby days, certainly has a rugby player’s build. Reflecting on his switch of career he said: “My mates started a Friday night league and I thought I’d have a crack. I thought ‘I’m pretty good at this’. I started going to local opens and winning a few.
“I found a set of darts I bought for £12 and got used to those. I was always a good scorer but kept missing chances on doubles. With these new darts I seemed to go to a new level.
“I met Barry Bates along the way and he told me to give pro a crack, go to Qualifying School. I put it off for two or three years but took the plunge and I’m here now.
“I always used to love watching darts. I always used to watch Phil (Taylor) as a kid, when I was playing rugby. I always used to imagine being on that stage and doing something like that. I’m finally doing it.
“I always thought if I had a talent like that I’d put the practice in and the hours. Which I’m doing now and it’s paying dividends.
“I’ve just got short term goals at the moment. To be in the top 16 and perform well in the TV events leading up to the World Championships because I’ve had three dreadful years of bombing out in the first round. Maybe over the next two or three years I can fight for a top 10 place, be on the regular circuit with these guys.”
Among a field of veterans and stars, Price is the odd man out in Dubai. But he’s hoping a decent Dubai performance can keep his fledgling career ticking along.
“I have 100 per cent belief in my ability but it’s just the consistency that’s lacking,” added Price, who can further enhance his reputation if he beats woefully out of form James Wade in his quarter-final tonight.
“If I can improve that then I’ll slide up the rankings a bit more over the long term. Victory here could work wonders for the career. I didn’t expect to be here this weekend but I had a good run in the UK Open, got to the final.
“Off the back of that I’m out here so if I can win this weekend something big could come off the back of it. I just need to keep on my toes and perform the best I can in every game.”
Peter Wright has been practicing with a dartboard out on his balcony while holidaying in Gibraltar in a bid to prepare himself for the stifling conditions at the Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters which start on Wednesday.
The fifth edition of the tournament takes place, as always, at the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium, with Englishman Wright starting his campaign for a maiden title against in-form Dave Chisnall in the quarter-finals.
Wright reached the final of the tournament in its second edition in 2014, losing 11-7 to Dutchman Michael van Gerwen, but suffered a far more agonising loss to Mighty Mike recently, going down 11-10 in the 2017 Premier League Darts final last Thursday after wasting five darts at double eight leading 10-9.
Van Gerwen pounced to level the match and then won the decider to lift his third crown.
Despite such a venomous defeat, the man nicknamed ‘Snakebite’ insists he is not carrying the weight of that painful defeat into Dubai.
“That’s all gone, done and dusted,” said the 47-year-old who bounced back two days later to win the Players Championship 11 in Milton Keynes.
“I went and won a floor tournament on the Saturday with a 120 average. I hit loads of double eights and double 16s. I don’t want none of that doubt out there. So let’s get on with it and lift this trophy.”
Wright is renowned for his outlandish attire and dyed hair on stage and he admits his colourful personality also helps him cope with disappointment.
“I’ve learnt years ago how to deal with games,” he added.
“I made mistakes in the final, that leg. I should have forgotten about it and I normally do. Next leg, next shot. That’s how I deal with stuff.
“But I went and won the next tournament so I’m not feeling the need to bounce back. I won that tournament and I’m on an upward curve again. I’m in a little bit of form, not playing too bad. I feel really good and I believe I can win.”
The Darts Masters is a unique event as it is played outdoors at the DDF Tennis Stadium’s Irish Village. And with the weather starting to ramp up as summer rapidly approaches, Wright revealed he has been preparing for the UAE desert’s temperatures.
“Preparations are I took a board, or part of a board out on a balcony with me in Gibraltar, and I was practicing outside, so I’ve had a bit of practice,” revealed the Scotsman.
“My balcony form was alright. I hit a couple of trebles, so I feel alright.”
After getting to the final three years ago, Wright also believes his previous Dubai experience can boost his chances of victory this year.
“I’ve got to a final before so I know how to deal with the heat,” he added.
“I hope that gives me an advantage. I’m playing Chizzy who’s one of the hardest players to play at the moment because he’s in good form so it’s going to be a cracking game.
“Once you get used to the heat of playing two games in the same night, I’ve done that, so I’ve definitely got an advantage. With the heat form goes out the window and it’s all about how you react to it as a player.”