Could this be the week of the Wizard? Simon Whitlock believes so and, after brushing aside the world number one Michael van Gerwen 11-4 last night, is now three more wins away from the biggest tournament victory of his career.
The Australian number one introduced us to the ‘new normal’ for televised darts on Saturday night, his first-round game with the debutant Ryan Joyce opening up this year’s World Matchplay, being played behind-closed-doors, without a crowd and away from Blackpool.
And while some things about this tournament feel very different, the lack of a live crowd replaced with artificial crowd noise, the Winter Gardens venue replaced by the Marshall Arena, in Milton Keynes, it was hard to envisage a different result occurring when Whitlock and van Gerwen locked horns on the stage in the second round last night.
Van Gerwen boasted a 15-game winning run against Whitlock, and had lost only five times in 40 previous competitive meetings. The last of those happening away from the cameras in 2016, while Whitlock’s last victory on TV over the world number one dated back to April 2013 in the Premier League.
But, as Whitlock has been telling us this week, van Gerwen would be playing a different Simon Whitlock. A refreshed and rejuvenated Simon Whitlock. When Covid-19 shut down the PDC tour back in March, it gave the players an unexpected opportunity to spend a prolonged period of time away from the busy calendar, which the professional circuit offers.
Even without being selected for the Premier League for the last two years, a decision which came as a surprise to Whitlock, he has still kept a busy schedule, juggling the ProTour with entertaining VIP guests on Premier League nights at the arenas. The break has given Whitlock time to rest, to reflect, and to work on all aspects of his game, both on and off the oche.
Whitlock says he feels healthier, having taken up weight training and regular walks during the lockdown, and the rise of online darts has also helped build his confidence, winning tournaments while playing from the comfort of his own home.
Beating the world’s best player last night, in front of the cameras and in the second biggest ranking event of the season, will only reassert the progress Whitlock feels like he is making. A lot of the attention, of course, will be on van Gerwen, and his below-par performance last night.
His 90.80 average is his lowest in a TV ranking match (without a double start) since becoming world champion. You have to go back to December 17, 2013, and the World Championship which he won, and an 89.13 average against Zoran Lerchbacher in the early rounds to find a lower average.
It has been a very long time since we have seen van Gerwen play to that level, especially over a longer format. In a race to 11 legs, even trailing 5-0 at the first break, van Gerwen was still evens with some bookmakers to come back and win.
But even when his opponent threatened a fightback, Whitlock held his nerve and popped up with some moments of real quality. Back-to-back 180s for a 12 darter to break for 6-2, six maximums in total, and a 14-dart leg to close out the match on throw.
Whitlock’s sole TV title, the 2012 European Championship, will have been eight years ago this September. Having started his 11th World Matchplay as the 16th seed and a 200/1 outsider, Whitlock is now a 16/1 shot and very much in the running to land his biggest title yet.