This was not Michael van Gerwen firing on all cylinders. This was not one of those big first-round statement wins, where the world number one has wiped the floor with his opponent in double-quick time without breaking a sweat.
Van Gerwen was made to work last night in the opening assignment of his 2019 World Grand Prix campaign. Jamie Hughes, the world number 59, and lowest-ranked of the 32 players in Dublin this week, asked the defending champion all kinds of questions.
The World Grand Prix was the tournament which really set van Gerwen’s PDC career alight. A come-from-behind win against Mervyn King in the 2012 final was the trigger for the Dutchman’s surge to the very top of the sport.
Four times van Gerwen has got his hands on the World Grand Prix trophy, the most of any player in the current field, but in his three previous attempts at defending the title he has fallen short.
Dave Chisnall, Robert Thornton and John Henderson have all claimed the scalp of the world’s best in 2013, 2015 and 2017. Henderson’s big win came in the first round and, for a little while last night, Hughes looked like doing the same.
The double-start format, unique to this tournament, makes an already cutthroat race to two sets even more challenging. Hughes, one of six debutants this week, won a wild first set, which saw the first four legs all won against the throw.
A 124 finish from van Gerwen had seen him break for a 2-1 lead, but a botched 48 out shot gave Hughes a reprieve, which he confidently took, checking out 96 on double eight to level again.
Three more misses at the outer ring followed in the decisive fifth leg for van Gerwen, and once again Hughes was well placed to pounce to reach the halfway point of knocking out the holder.
With the second set finely poised at one-leg apiece, van Gerwen found his range on the doubles. Leg three, two darts to get in and well ahead to finish in three. Leg four, in first dart and a 108 on double 14, with Hughes sat on 40, handed van Gerwen set two.
Hughes was not ready to budge just yet though, holding throw in the first leg of the last set, polishing off 84 in three. But the next two legs would put an end to his chances.
Van Gerwen missed two darts at double to hold, but unlike in the first set, Hughes could not punish the top seed, spurning two darts to break for 2-0.
Undettered by missing a golden chance to go 2-0 up in the decider, Hughes showed all the quality which has drawn plenty of admirers in his first year as a tour-card holder, kicking off leg three with seven perfect darts.
A missed dart at tops on 80 handed the iniative back to van Gerwen, who required 135. 25, treble 20, bull and a huge swing in the last set. From possibly being two down with three to play, van Gerwen was now all of a sudden 2-1 up and throwing for the match.
Now sensing blood, van Gerwen got in first dart, for only the fourth time in 13 legs, later added a 180 and checked out on 36 to avoid an opening-night exit.
13/39 on the double to start and 8/20 on the double to finish are not figures to strike fear among the other 23 players still standing in his way, but 4/6 on the double to start in the last set, coupled with 6/11 on the double to finish in the last two sets and those two big out shots shows that van Gerwen has the necessary firepower in his arsenal when he needs it most.
Up next, his new Dutch nemesis Jeffrey de Zwaan, who famously beat van Gerwen twice on TV last year. This will be their first televised meeting since the 2018 World Matchplay.
De Zwaan was the only lower-ranked player to come through last night, all of the other seven ties went to the higher-ranked man, but the Black Cobra is one player who has van Gerwen’s number on the big stage recently. Van Gerwen will need to once again hit the right shots at the right moments to avoid a third straight TV defeat to de Zwaan.
Picture: Lawrence Lustig/PDC