On Thursday 13 December, the William Hill World Darts Championship gets underway at the Alexandra Palace, with the final taking place on Tuesday 1 January 2019.
Rob Cross enters the tournament as defending champion, having beaten Phil Taylor 7-2 in last year’s final. In the 12 months since that memorable night, a lot has changed for both Cross and the World Championship.
The biggest change to the tournament has been its expansion in size, with the field rising from 64 players to 96. That growth has given the competition a much more international flavour, but the headline news was the inclusion of two female players. In a non-contact sport like darts, there’s no reason why women cannot compete with men, so this is a positive step for equality.
Lisa Ashton, a four-time women’s world champion, is the UK’s female representative and she opens her account against Jan Dekker of the Netherlands. Dekker has not had a particularly strong year and Ashton seems to be at her very best and she’s good value to win that game and move on to face the 19th seed Mervyn King in the last 64.
The other female qualifier, representing the Rest of the World, is Russia’s Anastasia Dobromyslova and she takes on Ryan Joyce. Anastasia has won the women’s world title three times and is phenomenally talented, but she definitely faces a tougher challenge. Joyce has won over £32,000 in prize money this year, his first year on the professional circuit, and is a strong favourite to come out on top in that game, but Anastasia has a chance.
One major consequence of the increased field is a rise in prize money. The overall pot stands at £2.5 million, £700,000 more than in 2018, with the tournament winner now receiving a cool half a million.
As aforementioned, Cross is the defending champion and the number two seed but is arguably playing the worst darts of his professional career. That seems ludicrous to say given that the former electrician has only been a professional for two years, but he’s had a torrid time since becoming world champion, struggling for form in the major television tournaments and putting on a fair amount of weight.
Cross’ case isn’t helped by being in the hardest quarter of the draw, with potential ties against Jonny Clayton, Dimitri van den Bergh or Stephen Bunting in the last 16, and the daunting prospect of possibly Michael Smith in the quarters. However, those matches all work on the basis of Cross beating his first round opponent, which will be the winner of Jeffrey de Zwaan against Indian qualifier Nitin Kumar. De Zwaan has had a brilliant year since regaining his tour card, most notably reaching the semi-final of the World Matchplay in July. On current form it’s hard to see Cross beating De Zwaan on the opening night (assuming he beats the relatively unknown Kumar), so an early exit for the defending champion seems likely.
Cross is in the bottom half of the draw, but the real star power is in the top half, where Michael van Gerwen and Gary Anderson are the standout names.
Van Gerwen enters the tournament as the top seed again but by his extraordinary standards, the Dutch ace has had a relatively indifferent year. ‘Mighty Mike’ has won three televised tournaments, his lowest tally since 2014, and he has suffered early exits in the UK Open, the Matchplay and the European Championship. He is still the benchmark for most players but his consistency and ability to hit the doubles has waned a little, and the aura of invincibility he once had has seemingly worn off a little.
The Dutchman opens his account against either Alan Tabern or Raymond Smith, with either Max Hopp or Danny Noppert waiting in the last 32. James Wade would represent a stern test for Van Gerwen in the quarter-finals, but to my mind the likely outcome is for Van Gerwen to go out in the semi-finals for the second year in a row, losing to the in-form Gary Anderson.
Anderson has undoubtedly been player of the year in the PDC, winning three major titles and reaching at least the quarter-finals in the rest. He is now firmly over his back troubles and seems to be enjoying darts, and were it not for the antics of Gerwyn Price at the Grand Slam, he’d likely have made it four majors. The Scot looks to be playing as good as he ever has and has a relatively straightforward draw before probably meeting Daryl Gurney in the quarters and Van Gerwen in the semi. That tie is the real ‘people’s final’, and it’s hard to pick against Anderson with the way he’s currently playing.
From the bottom half of the draw, the standout picks to make the final are Michael Smith and Gerwyn Price. Smith really should have won the World Series finals back in November and it increasingly feels like it’s a case of when and not if he wins his first major title. Smith faces either the Dutchman Ron Meulenkamp or Brazil’s Diogo Portela in the opening round, and barring any slip-ups, the ‘Bully Boy’ looks good value to record his best ever World Championship performance.
As for Price, the Welshman is definitely the pantomime villain this Christmas. His gamesmanship on the oche has divided opinion but he has made himself a name to watch and he does have the ability to do damage. The former rugby player is in the weakest quarter of the draw, with the top seed Peter Wright woefully off-form. It’s hard to see Wright getting past the last 32, and unless Ian White can convert his floor form to the TV stage, Price should have a relatively clear run to the semi-finals, where I expect he’ll lose to Smith.
So, my overall prediction is Anderson beating Smith in the final, but there’s also a lot of other names to watch out for.
One such name is that of Jeffrey De Zwaan, who I could see making it to the last 16 or even the quarter-finals if he can beat Cross and show similar form to what he showed at the Matchplay.
Dimitri van den Bergh, the young Belgian who recently retained his World Youth crown, also looks set to make a great impression. ‘The Dreammaker’ is one of few players who seem to play better on the stage than on the floor, and he reached the quarter-final of the competition this year. Should he win his first round game, he will meet Welshman Jonny Clayton in round two in what should be a terrific contest.
I’m also tipping Irishman Steve Lennon to have a good run. Lennon reached his first TV quarter-final recently at the Players Championship Finals, and also reached a European Tour final in May. Lennon opens his account against the Australian qualifier James Bailey and enters that contest as a heavy favourite. Should he win that he faces the 25th seed Alan Norris, who looks a shadow of his former self. Should Lennon beat Norris, which I expect him to do, he will probably face Simon Whitlock or Ryan Joyce in the last 32. The Irishman has the talent to beat either of them and make the last 16 and earn enough money to shoot himself further up the rankings.
Norris could well be one of several early exits. Dutch legend Raymond van Barneveld recently announced his intention to retire in a year’s time and has played quite poorly for much of 2018, and would appear to be there for the taking against either Matthew Edgar or the Lithuanian Darius Labanauskas. Further down the draw, it’s highly likely that Benito van de Pas also exits early, as the big Dutchman has struggled with his action for more than a year and will have a battle on his hands in his opening game, which will likely be against the Northern Irish player Mickey Mansell, who won his first ranking title in April.
With 28 nationalities represented and a number of top players in contention, this PDC World Darts Championship promises to be one of the best yet, so buckle in this Christmas for some top tungsten action!