RIGHT in the thick of the busiest period since shutdown, there’s no stoppage to the darting action as the most unique tournament on the calendar gets underway on Tuesday night.
When Barry Hearn made the draw for World Grand Prix last Monday, no one could have expected such potential fireworks to be thrown up right from the off. The ties on show in the first round have to make it one of, if not the best first round draw in a PDC major.
Sadly, though, just as the players were settling back into some sort of normality with the return of fans at the last two events, the Grand Prix follows the World Matchplay and Premier League behind closed doors, moving from Dublin to the new home of darts for the foreseeable future, Coventry’s Ricoh Arena.
Expect the unexpected
All the top seeds look vulnerable and it would be hard for any of the 32 players to even dream of a clear passage to the £110,000 top prize. Add in the unorthodox double-start and short set play format in the early stages, there is no surprise this tournament has seen numerous upsets over the years. It is so unlike what the players are familiar with, panic can set in knowing you are three darts away from trouble every single leg, pre-planned double to treble routines go out the window, and before you finally find time to relax, you are already heading home.
Finding the winner is a tough task, but with all that has materialised in front of the Sky Sports cameras since the restart, it may suggest to expect the unexpected. So, here are some outsiders who, under testing conditions, could act as spoilers at the Grand Prix this week…
Since first appearing at the World Championship in 2011, it had seemed as though his exuberant dancing was the best part of Devon Petersen taking to the stage. Now, his darts are starting to do the talking.
The African Warrior has been the most improved player on tour this year by a long way. Few players opt for a second opinion, but Petersen’s decision to do so is undoubtedly the shrewdest in his career.
2004 Grand Prix champion Colin Lloyd’s mental advice and Wayne Mardle’s technique tweaks combined with tireless work on the practice board have turned Petersen’s once remote expectations into reality.
Petersen reached his first PDC semi-final back in February, losing out to the World champion and after lockdown, came agonisingly close to reaching a final on the last day of the Summer Series against Price. A missed match dart then, turned into four agonising title darts at the Autumn Series in a pulsating clash, again failing to get the better of the World No. 3.
Though, last week, Petersen gained some revenge on Price, who suffered his first defeat in 17 matches, after coming back from 5-1 behind to beat the Iceman 6-5, on way to a fully deserved maiden title on the European Tour at the German Darts Championship – one of my selections at 55/1 on Twitter @sdm7730.
An incredible 25 180s, including 8 v Price and 6 v Cross and Clayton, over the weekend, helped Petersen average nigh on 100+ every game. If he can take that relentless power-scoring alongside the mettle showed on the outer ring under pressure in Hildesheim, into his debut at the Grand Prix, he will continue to be a major threat in Coventry.
The African Warrior’s first round tie looks a box-office encounter, yet could well turn out to be utterly bonkers at the same time. Jose de Sousa has had a similar rise to Petersen, bulldozing through fields and picking up long-awaited titles in his breakthrough campaign last year. Though, de Sousa is mind-boggling. The Special One and the double-start format has the makings of a disaster.
This man once started a leg in a normal format game before either player had even won the previous leg. And now, he’s tasked with remembering to start and end each leg with a double. More de Sousa dopiness appears inevitable, but despite his quirks the Portuguese being a real contender for any title is testament to his astounding ability and if he somehow is even vaguely aware of what to do on the Grand Prix stage, Petersen will need to find some of that recent magic to kickstart his hunt for successive titles.
It is only a matter of time before we see Krzysztof Ratajski produce a big run in a major. The Polish Eagle is a former World Master, who has won multiple titles in Players Championship and Euro Tour events since his PDC career took off in 2018. The only reason he is priced as big as he is for the 2020 Grand Prix, is because of Michael van Gerwen’s name being next to his in the first round draw.
Yet, van Gerwen continues to look erratic. The Dutchman added to his list of poor performances since the restart in the German Darts Championship, where he was woeful against Mervyn King, averaging 89 in a 6-1 drubbing. Mighty Mike cruised to a fifth Grand Prix title at 6/4 this time last year, fast forward to now and at 4/1 he is clinging on to favouritism. For many players this spell would go down as a bad patch, but this is bordering on a crisis for the World No. 1.
Mighty Mike will undoubtedly return to his scintillating best, if it is this week or not, but at the moment it is hard to make a case for him against anyone, especially in such a short format. The Dutchman would have been hoping for a favourable draw, perhaps a player he may feel to have an upper hand on before even reaching the oche, to help rebuild some of that diminishing confidence. He got quite the opposite in Ratajski, a cold-hearted punisher on the board with the best doubling stats on stage this season. It does not get any easier in the latter stages, with the winner facing Petersen or de Sousa in the last 16, though get past a fragile van Gerwen and the Pole’s overpriced odds for glory plummet.
Jonny Clayton was under huge pressure in his first match at the German Darts Championship as he scrapped to secure qualification for the Grand Prix. The Welshman held his nerve to beat Chris Dobey, and the win acted as a catalyst for another superb run on the Euro Tour.
Clayton, who was able to relax and play with freedom on the last day, defeated Peter Wright and Dave Chisnall for the first time in his career on way to the final. He may have found Petersen too good, but the financial security that comes from still working away from the sport and securing spots in the big majors clearly brings the best out of Clayton. Perhaps not as often as it should, but when it does, the Ferret can be first-class. Replicate that free-hit mentality from Hildesheim at the most taxing of tournaments, and Clayton will be one to watch this week.
Both Danny Noppert and Ryan Searle were fancied longshots in Coventry, until they were picked out to face each other in round one. Only one can keep that tag and make it through to the last 16, though the victor looks to have a great chance of doing damage in the second quarter of the draw.
Noppert was seriously impressive at the German Darts Championship, especially in his 6-2 quarter-final win over defending champion Daryl Gurney, where he averaged 99+ and hit 6/7 attempts at a double. There was a certain inevitably about the Dutchman in Hildesheim, before facing up to the eventual winner, and the ultra-consistent form he has shown all year was given a timely boost ahead of his third appearance in this tournament.
You get the feeling there is more to come from Ryan Searle. We see glimpses of his fluid throw producing world class quality on the floor, certainly in February when he beat van Gerwen to win his first title, backed up particularly with eye-catching runs at the World Championship. Heavy Metal grew up playing double-start and has mentioned how keen he has been to have a crack at the Grand Prix ever since joining the tour. It is a format he clearly feels comfortable with, and at such long odds, Searle’s eagerness should not go unnoticed.
Awaiting the winner in the second round is an unpredictable Rob Cross or Gary Anderson, who after playing himself into form during the Premier League has had three weeks away from the action. There is real reason to suspect a huge opportunity could open up for either Noppert or Searle in Coventry.