By Nick Friend
With the 2015 PDC William Hill World Championships just around the corner, Nick Friend spoke to World Number 1 ‘Mighty’ Michael van Gerwen to discuss his chances of retaining the title
There are few greater sights in sport than a thrilling rivalry – full of twists and turns, mutual respect and unrivalled quality. When two men battle it out, fighting to the proverbial death, there can be few better sights. When a sport finds a prodigious youngster to challenge the goliathan champion – a man worthy of sporting immortality, what more is there to want?
Darts has it all and from 18th December right up until 4th January 2015, London’s Alexandra Palace will host the PDC World Championship in front of sell-out crowds. Cynics will say that many of the 50,000 fans who will flood into the venue will be there for the alcohol, fancy dress and carnival atmosphere. With hundreds of millions watching on the new Sky Sports Darts channel, there must be more to it.
In Phil Taylor and Michael van Gerwen, darts has a selling point that other sports can only dream of. The closest comparison that springs to mind is the Federer/Nadal rivalry of 2007 and 2008. Perhaps Alan Donald’s battles with Michael Atherton come close – both full of respect for their opponent but also supremely competitive.
Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor has put darts on the map. Van Gerwen admits as much, claiming, “he has done everything for darts and we all owe him a lot.”
The 16-time World Champion is, in the words of Mighty Mike, “the best there ever will be.” Van Gerwen, however, is harsh on himself here. Indeed, Taylor has been fantastic for darts and continues to be so. There can be no doubting that. Yet, were it not for the Dutchman, it is difficult to see who would be challenging the 54 year-old. Adrian Lewis has proven too inconsistent to build on his double triumph in 2011 and 2012. Raymond van Barneveld, van Gerwen’s compatriot and a five-time World Champion, is struggling for form. The likes of Simon Whitlock, Peter Wright and James Wade are all superb players but a step below the frontrunners.
Hence, van Gerwen’s emergence has reenergised and shocked the sport – not because darts was struggling, but because his sheer ability and precociousness is behind only that of his great rival. Commentator Wayne Mardle described him as “the second best player I’ve ever seen in my life”, Taylor, naturally, being the best.
Dutch sportsmen have always been great entertainers – just think of Cruyff, van Basten, Bergkamp, Krajicek. Few, though, can claim to be as exciting as Michael van Gerwen.
“I honestly can’t, I just throw. Simple.”
Of course, as was seen at last month’s Grand Slam of Darts in his quarter-final defeat to Kim Huybrechts, when he is out of form, he struggles like the rest of us. However, this same arm speed allows momentum to build up so easily. His nine-darter against James Wade in 2012 – part of a remarkable sequence of seventeen perfect darts – is testament to that.
“Sometimes in darts and probably in any sport you just hit a zone where you feel like you can’t miss,” he tells me. It is for this reason, he explains, that “when I’m playing well I only practice a little to keep my arm loose.”
The way in which Van Gerwen talks is symptomatic of his route into darts. Much like his throw, his way into the sport was instinctive – not a lifelong dream of his at the time. He began playing at the age of thirteen with friends and enjoyed himself so started entering tournaments. It was winning these, he says, that encouraged him – not, as I suggest to him, the likes of countrymen Van Barneveld and Roland Scholten.
“I didn’t really watch darts when I was younger so I don’t have a hero or anything like that, I just played and found I was good at it and went from there.” His story is straightforward and typical of his attitude at the oche.
By the time he was seventeen and having only been playing for four years, Van Gerwen had already hit a nine-darter and won the World Masters title. Progress, however, began to stall and frustration grew – not just for him but also for the many who had labelled him as the ’next big thing.’ In 2008, he missed a dart for the match against Taylor in the first round of the World Championship. He lost. What followed was, for a man of his immense talent, a three-year relative struggle.
The turning point, according to Van Gerwen, was 2011. “I had won a lot of games on the youth tour – and four tournaments – and I took that into the main tour and then on to the stage. It created confidence and then when I won the World Grand Prix, I never looked back.”
After winning PDC Young Player of the Year in 2011, he had a sensational 2012. As well as the Grand Prix triumph, he was a runner-up at the Grand Slam. At the end of the year and beginning of 2013, Taylor defeated him in the World Championship final.
His respect for Taylor is gargantuan and unwavering. Too often in modern sport, the greats fail to appreciate the ability of their competitor.
Van Gerwen is different. When I ask him for his best ever performance, he focuses on victories over Taylor. Statistically, his 6-0 victory over Steve Beaton in which he averaged 121.86 – the highest average in a televised match of all time – should be among his thoughts. Yet, when you beat Taylor, you know you have played well.
“It is hard to choose one. I had a very good performance against Phil [Taylor] in the Grand Slam in 2012 and also when I beat him 7-0 in the Premier League.”
Michael understands the importance of conquering the 16-time world champion. Topping the Order of Merit ahead of Taylor, as opposed to after his retirement is “even more special.”
“In future years when he has retired, people will say that it is easier to be number one so I am so happy to achieve it when he is still playing at his best.”
He is not obsessed with his rival. There is enormous respect but no fear. Van Gerwen is fearless, very much his own man.
“I don’t always want to be compared to Phil. I want to be known for my own achievements. I am not trying to be the next Phil Taylor, I just want to be myself and win as much as I can.”
Despite the mutual respect, unsurprisingly, he cites his favourite victory and greatest achievement as the 7-4 triumph over Peter Wright that saw Van Gerwen become the youngest ever PDC World Championship winner.
He loves Alexandra Palace and everything that surrounds his “favourite tournament.” His fans are, in his words, “fantastic.” Looking ahead to the competition, Van Gerwen is optimistic. Although he is not the bookies’ favourite following Taylor’s victory at the Grand Slam of Darts, his confidence is not dented.
“I’m not the favourite now but it doesn’t matter. As long as I believe I can win, that is the most important thing.”
Van Gerwen’s philosophical reply is testament to how the Dutch dartist has grown and matured. It seems almost unthinkable that this man who hit his first televised nine-darter in 2007 is only twenty-five. It renders my final question almost foolish as I ask if there is a young player to look out for. While he picks out 22-year-old Keegan Brown, his answer shows off the competitive streak inherent in this unbelievably talented athlete.
“I don’t really want to pick out another player. I want to win everything myself!”
Photographs: PDC, PDC, Lawrence Lustig/PDC