As a shortened PDC season enter its conclusion, change could be in the offing among the top-three ranked-players with the Grand Slam of Darts and World Darts Championship on the horizon.
An out-of-sorts Michael van Gerwen finds his once-unassailable dominance as world No 1 under threat from ever-present world champion Peter Wright and the man playing arguably the best darts on the planet right now in Gerwyn Price.
Whether it be debutant winners at the Premier League and World Matchplay in Glen Durrant and Dimitri Van den Bergh, respectively, or an unlikely World Grand Prix finalist in Dirk van Duijvenbode, crowdless darts amid the coronavirus pandemic has continued to surprise. But Wayne Mardle believes the leading trio will again be the ones to beat come the Grand Slam.
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“Michael van Gerwen is kind of a worry with his back but I think there’s a few in there that can live with them as well,” said Mardle.
“Obviously you’re going to have Michael Smith, Nathan Aspinall, Gary Anderson. James Wade will come into that argument as well because we know what James is like, he’s a difficult customer to deal with.
“If you are going to pick out three players that can be head and shoulders above the rest, it’s those three. They are one, two and three in the world for a reason. What order one, two and three are going to be after the Worlds we don’t know.
“But going into the Grand Slam, Michael van Gerwen won’t be feeling good about his game or maybe his body, Gerwyn Price is a million dollars and to say he wouldn’t win it again, I’d say he probably fancies the task more than ever.”
The world champion
Wright recently added a European Championship title to his growing list of accolades as he beat James Wade 11-4 in the final, having averaged more than 102 in each of his five matches.
‘Snakebite’ also won two Players Championship events over the summer, as well as reaching the Premier League Play-Offs where he was beaten by Nathan Aspinall, and Mardle believes the Grand Slam format will play to the Scot’s strengths.
“His leg-on-leg ability and concentration, his leg-on-leg pressure that he applies to an opponent will work over a longer distance rather than a short one, which is what we saw in the World Championship final against Michael van Gerwen,” said Mardle.
“He was just constantly hitting big shots every leg, every set and it’s not surprising he beat Michael over the format and we’ve seen Peter Wright reach the final here twice over the last three years, lost to Michael van Gerwen and Gerwyn Price.
“On that day last year Gerwyn Price reached 107 point something, he was unplayable. I remember Peter Wright said ‘I did well to win six’. It was an incredible performance.
“But Peter Wright gets to the latter stages of these long-winded events a lot because he’s very good leg in, leg out. To beat him over a long format you’ve got to do a lot right very, very often.”
The world champion has notoriously been an ever-present on the circuit throughout the last few years, but he opted to miss two European Tour events last month and also sat out last weekend’s World Cup in Salzburg, a decision which Mardle thinks could pay dividends.
“If he can pick and choose between World Cups and Winter Series and get himself absolutely bang on for the Grand Slam then he’s doing the right thing by his mind and you have to be mentally fit to be able to compete.
“If Peter Wright by missing some of the events thinks he has more of a chance to win the bigger ones then good on him. I think he’s doing it right, because I don’t think playing every event is the way forward.”
The winning machine
A rampant Price enters the tournament a newly-crowned World Cup champion, the reigning World Grand Prix champion and World Series champion, having also added an eighth PDC title of 2020 with victory on Day Three of the Winter Series.
“I’m not going to be ageist here, but he’s 15 years younger than Peter Wright,” said Mardle. “Most people may think it’s nonsense, it’s darts. I can tell you it matters. I don’t feel the same as when I was 35, 12 years down the line I’m not the same human being.
“I’ve had chats with him before where we’ve spent time away doing exhibitions and corporate gigs, he’s like ‘Wayne I want to take this for all it’s got, I can’t believe I’m making a living playing darts, this is amazing’, and as a sport he said ‘I never thought that I’d play it professionally so I’m just going to keep turning up and keep trying to win and go home and repeat the process’, and I admire that.”
Price initially appeared to struggle with the more sterile behind-closed-doors environment as he suffered an early exit in July’s World Matchplay, but he has adapted magnificently to rediscover the winning formula and Mardle has paid tribute to the consistent intensity of his performances.
“The way he plays with that aggression and emotion is tiring, so for him to keep doing it takes some mental strength.
“His game in general is very, very good, but it’s his will to win. He absolutely thrives on that thought of winning and if you listen to him like at the Grand Prix, he never once spoke of winning until he won.
“It was ‘do you believe you can win?’ and it was like ‘well of course I do but there a lot of people doing that so I’ll just keep ploughing on’, and that’s where he doesn’t get ahead of himself. He knows he can win because he’s done it before and done it again and now he’s continuing to do it on a more-than-regular basis.
“I just think you’re never over the line against him because he has got those battling qualities. He’s very, very good under pressure. He has little dips in games, of course he does, but I think when he’s on he’s more of an imposing character than absolutely anybody in the game.”
The world No 1
It seems almost unfathomable that Van Gerwen does not begin a major tournament as an overwhelming favourite, but that is reflective of his barren run which has seen him fail to reach a televised final in his last five major events.
Van Gerwen’s last major triumph came at the UK Open prior to lockdown, but since the restart he has struggled to produce the goods. By his exceptional standards he endured a nightmare Premier League campaign, and now faces a fight to maintain his world No 1 status over the coming months.
“Michael is probably in as worse shape mentally, and I’m going to say physically now as well with his back problem that hindered him at the World Cup, that he’s been in since 2012. If he plays well, I think he wins,” admitted Mardle.
“The chances of him playing somewhere near his best are quite remote because when he’s looked good he’s looked a million dollars, but his ‘B’ game has just deserted him completely. He gets flustered that little bit easier.
“The composure that you think is there on dart one disappears for dart two and returns for dart three. His emotions must be everywhere with that and that’s a horrible feeling. You think you’re in control, you’re not and then that wave passes and you feel good again. That is not pleasant.”
Van Gerwen is no stranger to Grand Slam success, scooping the coveted title in three consecutive years between 2015 and 2017, and Mardle believes the elongated format could alleviate some of the pressure currently on the Dutchman’s shoulders.
“This is a good event for him to see where his game is at because come quarter-finals, semi-finals the formats are long enough to build up a lead where you don’t actually get put under pressure.
“You can win the Grand Slam without being under the cosh so this will be a real good yardstick of where his game is at and I’m intrigued to see what happens. Michael van Gerwen is a champion because when he is playing near his best his best is so far better than anybody else’s.”
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