Monday 17 June 2019

'I'll knock Van Gerwen off his perch,' claims Smith

World Championship runner-up unfazed by heavy loss but joins long list trying to stop flying Dutchman

Michael Smith throws during his final defeat against Michael van Gerwen at the World Darts Championships. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Wire
Michael Smith throws during his final defeat against Michael van Gerwen at the World Darts Championships. Photo: Steven Paston/PA Wire

Jonathan Liew

Michael Smith walked into the press room at Alexandra Palace nursing a sore hand and a wounded ego. The wounded ego was from his comprehensive mauling in the World Championship final. The sore hand was from punching the wall of his dressing room in frustration midway through it.

Still, as he began to reflect on his 7-3 defeat to Michael van Gerwen, it seemed like both hand and ego were well on the way to a full recovery. There was none of the homage or humility you might expect from a world No 10 without a single ranking title who had just been schooled by one of the greatest darts players of this or any generation. Just a seething self-reproach.

"I had a dart for the first set, four for the third set, a dart for the fourth, two darts for the fifth…" he complained. "I had so many chances, even playing rubbish."

Someone asked Smith if the right man had won. He shook his head. "It's annoying, because I know if I turn up, I'm a better player than Michael," he said. "Michael isn't the best player out there. He might be world No 1, but he's not. I'm just waiting for that one big win, and as soon as I get that, you best watch out. I'll take him from that No 1 perch. When I do get it, it's the end for him."

You'd expect nothing less, of course: from Smith or from anyone else. In a sport where the only limits on a player's potential are very often the limits they place on themselves, a healthy appetite for delusion is frequently par for the course.

Darts is very much like boxing in that respect: never revere, never genuflect, never show the slightest hint of weakness.

Smith isn't currently a better player than Van Gerwen. Everyone knows that. Everyone, that is, except Smith himself.

The trouble is that ever since Van Gerwen's astonishing rise to supremacy in the second half of 2012, plenty have talked about knocking him off his perch, but cherishably few have managed it.

Surrender

Phil Taylor kept him at arm's length just long enough to eke out one final world title against him in 2013 - a win that in hindsight may come to be regarded as his greatest - but was eventually forced to surrender to the dimming of the light.

Gary Anderson's peak years are beginning to run out. Peter Wright and Rob Cross have intermittently threatened to storm the keep without ever quite sustaining a challenge. Now Smith believes he is the chosen. One problem: there isn't currently a vacancy.

Sitting alongside the trophy for the third time, Van Gerwen was in characteristically bullish mood.

Why had none of the putative challengers to his throne been able to dethrone him until now?

"Because they're not good enough," he retorted. "You can say whatever you want. But you also need the mindset and the balls to do it. A lot of people tried to match me. But it's about talent."

Van Gerwen had just got off the phone with the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, who had called to congratulate him on a third world title. What did Rutte have to say?

"That I did it for Holland and… blah, blah, blah, blah, blah," Van Gerwen replied, to laughter. "Just the standard text. He probably had a list of what to say. But I'm quite happy with him as a prime minister. He needs to keep tax down, please!"

Perhaps it was only natural that financial matters were on Van Gerwen's mind after picking up the biggest prize cheque ever seen in darts.

The idea of a player earning £500,000 for a single tournament would have been unthinkable a generation ago. But now the top players are fabulously wealthy, to the point where they now moan about the effects of Brexit. "It affects me really hard," Van Gerwen explained. "Just look at the pound. I get everything paid out in pounds, so that costs me 10 per cent of my prize money straight away. It's horrible, isn't it? Did you vote for it? It's horrible. I don't like it."

But to more important numbers. And the real question: having joined the likes of John Lowe and John Part on three world titles, how much higher can Van Gerwen go?

He turns 30 in April, and having set himself a target of retiring by the age of 40, accepts that Taylor's mark of 16 world titles will always remain out of reach.

Beyond that, the sport's growing field and its widening frontiers will produce more and more threats to his dominance as time goes on.

Van Gerwen was feeling confident enough to talk about adding "a few more world titles". There are never any guarantees, even for a man of his immense gifts. But somehow, it feels like every win strengthens him still further.

Here, then, is the conundrum for Van Gerwen's challengers: it only gets harder from here. Already, he takes to the stage with the sort of imposing aura and fearsome reputation that forces good players to miss.

Smith was a full five points below his tournament average on Tuesday night, ample evidence of the way Van Gerwen's sustained excellence exerts an asphyxiating pressure on his opponents.

Taylor always reckoned that during his heyday, his name alone was worth a couple of sets' head-start. And like Taylor, the longer Van Gerwen stays in pole position, the harder it will be to shift him.

Not that it will stop anyone trying. Smith, for his part, is adamant he'll be back before long.

"That loss won't define me," he insisted defiantly, and perhaps it's not the best time to inform him that 10 of the 13 first-time World Championship finalists in the PDC era never got a second chance.

"That one big win," he repeated, as if for emphasis. "As soon as I get that, you best watch out." (© Independent News Service)

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