Who’s the best? Sports fans have been arguing about this since time immemorial. Sometimes it’s undeniable, as with tennis right now, but generally it’s a little more complicated.
Each judge will give different importance to each piece of evidence: leagues, cups, world rankings, head-to-heads, even personal prejudice. The debate is particularly intriguing in darts, where Gary Anderson, the world champion, and Michael van Gerwen, the world No1, both have compelling claims to be regarded as the best in the world. Last month, for the first time, the PDC Player of the Year award was shared.
Anderson has won the last two World Championships, the tournament that defines careers and lives, and has gatecrashed what most thought would be the age of Van Gerwen. He is also the reigning champion of the Betway Premier League, which starts in Leeds on Thursday night. Van Gerwen is comfortably top of the Order of Merit, however, and won 18 tournaments in 2015 with a series of awesome performances.
Yet when he lost in the last 16 of the worlds to Raymond van Barneveld, an astonishing match for which the word ‘epic’ felt inadequate, Van Gerwen did not even bother trying to hide his devastation in the post-match interview. “It doesn’t matter,” he said when asked about his great year. “I want to win this one. I want to throw all the other ones in the bin for this one.” Van Gerwen years are like dog years, and not winning the worlds or the Premier League since 2013-14 will gnaw at such a perfectionist-winner.
The contrast between the two in the last 18 months has been fascinating. Van Gerwen has been terrifyingly consistent; Anderson has serenely turned it on when it really matters. Van Gerwen has won almost everything; Anderson has won the biggest things. That point was reinforced in the first major of the year last weekend: Anderson went out in the first round of the Masters to Vincent van der Voort, who he obliterated a few weeks ago at the worlds. Van Gerwen won the tournament, again.
The rivalry between the two, given extra nuance by their genuine friendship, is among the most intriguing in elite sport and is likely to be the eventual focus on this year’s Premier League. In the last two years they have met in the play-offs: Van Gerwen won against Anderson in the semi-finals in 2014, Anderson beat Van Gerwen in last year’s final.
They have only met once since then, an oddity given the extent to which they have monopolised the sport. That was in the final of the European Championship, a relatively minor major. Van Gerwen came from 10-7 down to win 11-10, an important victory at a time when Anderson seemed to have a hold on him. The Premier League guarantees at least one contest, a humdinger in Newcastle next week, almost certainly two and possibly three.
Before that, Anderson will play Adrian Lewis on Thursday in a repeat of last month’s World Championship final, a peculiar game that mixed genius and mediocrity and was eventually won 7-5 by Anderson. Van Gerwen starts against the 2009 Premier League champion James Wade.
Thursday night sport doesn’t have the best reputation in England – Channel 5 and all that – but for darts the opposite is true, and “Thursday night, Sky Sports 1” will fill the calendar for the next 16 weeks. The league starts with 10 players, who meet each other once. After that the bottom two are relegated, and the remaining eight play each other again, with the top four going through to a semi-final and final in London on 19 May.
Four months’ work can come down to one visit to the oche, as Dave Chisnall found out in last year’s semi-final. In a deciding leg against Anderson, Chisnall missed three darts at double and was mugged when Anderson took out 116. The winning double was the first time Anderson had been ahead in the match. Van Gerwen also knows about the perils of play-off night. He has finished top of the league in each of his three seasons but has won the tournament only once, in 2013.
There are two changes from last year’s lineup. Michael Smith, the latest off the St Helens production line after Chisnall and Stephen Bunting, is the only newcomer; he is a brilliant natural talent who specialises in apparently effortless 180s. Robert Thornton – the only man other than Van Gerwen and Anderson to win a major last year – returns after missing last year’s competition, with Bunting and Kim Huybrechts dropping out. The standard of darts is higher than ever, reflected in averages that border on the laughable, and the only relative certainty is that Van Gerwen and Anderson will reach the semi-finals.
Whether it is triumphant or disastrous, the story of Phil Taylor will be unmissable. Last season he failed to qualify for the play-offs for the first time, one of the low points of a trying year that ended when he was beaten by Jelle Klaasen in the last 16 of the worlds. At the age of 55, he is never going to dominate as before. He has tinkered incessantly with his darts in the last two years, but his display at the Masters last weekend showed considerable promise.
Taylor missed seven match darts in the semi-final against Van Gerwen, but his excellent overall performance felt more instructive than one freakish leg. “He’s going to win tournaments again, trust me,” said Van Gerwen. “He had a fantastic tournament and it’s not only about averages but also his confidence. People write him off so many times but I never do.”
Taylor won six of the first eight Premier Leagues between 2005 and 2012. The tournament has grown enormously since its inception and now rivals the World Matchplay as the second most prestigious tournament. Financially it has exceeded the Matchplay: the prize money has risen to £725,000, with a £25,000 bonus for whoever wins the league stage.
This year it will leave the UK and Ireland for the first time, with Rotterdam’s Ahoy Arena hosting the final week of the league stage. All 8,000 tickets sold out within an hour of going on sale. The fixtures for that night will not be known until after two players are relegated in week nine. But Van Gerwen v Anderson - in front of a partisan Dutch crowd, perhaps to decide who tops the league table - would be a mouthwatering way to start the Premier League’s European years.
Peter Wright v Michael Smith
Michael van Gerwen v James Wade
Phil Taylor v Raymond van Barneveld
Gary Anderson v Adrian Lewis
Robert Thornton v Dave Chisnall
The Premier League will be shown exclusively on Sky Sports.
This article was written by Rob Smyth, for theguardian.com on Thursday 4th February 2016 12.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010