Darts carves out niche in crowded market
Increased television exposure has catapulted the sport of darts back into the nation’s consciousness, with attendances and prize money soaring.
Darts professionals are finally getting the acclaim and recognition many feel their unique skills deserve. The top players, still disappointed at being denied the opportunity to showcase their talents at the 2012 Olympics in London, are pushing each other to new Olympian heights – even if the IOC continues to turn a deaf ear.
The snobbery and prejudice have slowly been broken down, despite howls of derision from exponents and lovers of certain more established sports. It is certainly a golden age in terms of performance, popularity and panache.
The third in line to the throne was even spotted mingling at this year’s PDC World Championship.
Adrian Lewis, managed to find time to give Prince Harry a hug and a smooch as he left the oche with the PDC World Championship trophy tucked under one of his burly forearms.
Breaking into the world’s top 16 has never been harder with an greater talent pool and averages rising as rapidly as a Dubai skyscraper.
The week before a major tournament, a modern player is more likely to be found pounding a treadmill in his local gym than propping up a bar.
Leading contender Mervyn King, the world No 9, is convinced the current level of play is at an all-time high. "To break into the top 16, that’s an elite group,” said King. "That is no mean feat and is something that takes a lot of dedication. It is mentally tough as well as physical. The standard is getting so high now.”
Much of the modern success is down to the colossal talents of 15-times world champion Phil Taylor and five-times don Raymond van Baarneveld. The star duo’s deeds have forced others to raise their performance levels and work rate just to stay in touch.
"Fortunately I hit the ground running when I joined the PDC,” King said. "So far, I’ve been able to raise my game as the standard has rocketed. If the quality keeps getting higher and I reach a ceiling I could be in trouble, but at the moment all is rosy. I’m playing well and I know I can compete.”
"The King”, one of the heaviest scorers in the business, is somewhat misunderstood and has attracted some unwarranted negative headlines in the past with his game-day intensity being misconstrued as aloofness. Don’t believe the hype. An ever-present in the world’s top ten since he joined the PDC in 2007, King is one of the most articulate and approachable men on the circuit.
Like golf, in which the professionals work intensely on the range or make swing alterations, the game can never be truly mastered. Subtle alterations are made to technique and equipment as players crave consistency and excellence. Professional darts is a continual work in progress.
King would love darts players to get a little bit more recognition for their hard work. "Over the last six to ten years we’ve done a lot to shake the stigma, when you bear in mind our meagre beginnings in pubs and clubs,” he said. "We’ve done a lot to improve our sport’s image and it is a fully sanctioned sport now.”
"Being a household name in darts doesn’t carry the same kudos as being a top 16-ranked golfer by any means, but I would love that gap to close a little bit. Darts and golf are two sports I absolutely love. But you ask a pro golfer to throw three darts at treble 20. It is so tough.”
The 45-year-old from Norfolk goes into next month’s Sky Bet Mobile World Matchplay in Blackpool – considered by many the biggest event outside the World Championship – full of confidence, hoping to end a mini-slump in form that coincided with his father’s death last year.
"On the floor I’m playing some really cracking stuff,” he said. "I’m surprised I haven’t won more than just once this year (at The Players Championship event in Halle), although it has taken very good play from other players to dispose of me.”
"I’ve had a tough year with my father passing, but I feel I’m at about 85 per cent and on my way back to where I need to be. But I still love being in a fight. When two players are up there playing excellently, there is nothing better for me.”
One of the new breed of dedicated young professionals, Mark Webster, the BDO world champion in 2008, has always saved his best performances for the Worlds. Since switching to the Barry Hearn-run PDC, the 27-year-old Welshman has added to his impressive resume with back-to-back semi-final appearances at Alexandra Palace.
The supremely gifted left-hander knows he must continue his upward curve as he tries to compete more regularly with the elite names. "I need to be a bit more consistent and a bit more ruthless,” he said. "I get myself into positions sometimes and don’t always close out games. That is where I know I can improve. Leading into the larger events you need momentum.”
"If you’re having a good run in the competitions the previous few weeks it always helps your self-belief.”
Webster’s debut season in the Premier League did not go to plan, as he struggled to find his true form. He averaged an astonishing 110 in Exeter as he brushed aside Lewis, but admits that, overall, he did not do himself justice.
"I enjoyed it, but I found it difficult obviously,” he said. "I learnt an awful lot. Unfortunately I had to learn the hard way. It was a big step up, but I know I can compete with the top guys as I proved on occasions.
"I just need a bit more consistency and my confidence got a bit battered after a few hidings. I didn’t really recover from it. My aim is get back in next year so I can right the wrongs of this year. "
Fans, many of whom feel priced out of watching Premier League football, are turning to darts in their thousands. Webster, like the majority of his peers, performs many exhibition matches each year in small intimate venues as club players get the chance to see their heroes up close.
The whole sport feels incredibly grounded; no prima donna would survive for long on tour.
Reaching the summit of world darts is a difficult, long, lonely pursuit. Hours of daily practice is required as skills are honed and shots mastered. Webster tries to keep his sessions as interesting and varied as possible.
"Practice can be monotonous and boring if you don’t mix it up,” he said. "You need to pick up as many games with other pros as you can and try and vary what you’re doing.”
The leading British players are still the men to beat, but darts has become a global game in recent years.
Holland’s Van Baarneveld and popular Canadian John Part, a world champion on three occasions, were the pioneers who broke Albion’s stranglehold on the sport. Others are desperate to replicate their success.
The PDC Order of Merit is littered with players from the Netherlands. ‘Barney’, Vincent van der Voort, Co Stompe, Jelle Klaasen and Michael van Gerwen are all currently ranked in the world’s top 32 .
With the Dutch hosting more and more professional tournaments, like the RTL7 International Masters held in Egmond Aan Zee in March, the game there is blooming.
Australia’s Simon Whitlock and Paul Nicholson have also emerged as serious contenders for the major prizes. Whitlock reached the 2010 PDC World Championship final, only to run into Taylor at his imperious best. The "Wizard” was unfortunate not to emulate compatriot Tony David, another international world champion, who was crowned BDO king in 2002.
Nicholson, who wears a dapper skinny tie during matches, showed scintillating recent form in beating Premier League champion Gary Anderson and Taylor at the Speedy Hire UK Open Finals in Bolton.
The United Kingdom can no longer claim outright sovereignty like it did in the heyday of Eric Bristow,John Lowe, Jocky Wilson, Taylor et al. However, unlike snooker, the sport has reinvented itself successfully this past decade to ride a wave of popularity that shows no signs of stopping.
Mervyn King and Mark Webster are part of Team Winmau www.winmau.com