The first darts in the 2021-22 PDC season will be thrown next weekend, as the top 24 players on the PDC Order of Merit contest the Ladbrokes Masters, behind closed doors at the Marshall Arena, in Milton Keynes. ALEX MOSS runs through five reasons to look forward to this year’s Masters…
Darts back on our screens – what more could you ask for?
To quote recent PDC World Championship semi-finalist Stephen Bunting: “Bring back the PDC.” Three weeks have now passed since Gerwyn Price defeated Gary Anderson to become world champion and, in more normal times, there would have been plenty of darts going on to avoid any post-Ally Pally comedown.
But that has not been the case in 2021. There was no BDO World Championship to sink our teeth into, while Q-School, which usually follows less than a week after the BDO’s showpiece event, has been pushed back and is not scheduled to start until February 8.
So, when Ian White and Mensur Suljovic play out the curtain raiser for the Masters next Friday night, it will be a welcome sight having darts back on our screens. Despite all the challenges thrown their way during a Covid-disrupted 2020, the PDC did a magnificent job putting on tournaments. Especially during the latter, colder months of the year when we were all stuck at home and more restrictions returned here in the UK.
The PDC’s Masters might not hold the same prestige as its namesake in other sports, like golf and snooker, but for those of us currently under another lockdown, the thought of three days of live, televised darts will be greatly received.
A new world champion and world number one being introduced
Next weekend’s Masters retains the same venue from 2020, at Milton Keynes’ Marshall Arena, but unlike 12 months ago there will be no fans in attendance.
Although Gerwyn Price won’t get the same reception that Peter Wright enjoyed in last year’s Masters, as he walked out for the first time as the new champion of the world, it will still be a walk-on that Price will never forget when John McDonald introduces him to the stage next Saturday night.
Not only will be Price be introduced as the newly-crowned world champion, but for the first time in seven years someone other than Michael van Gerwen will be referred to as the world number one.
Price ended van Gerwen’s PDC record-run at the top of the rankings by going all the way at Ally Pally, so with arguably the two biggest accolades in his possession, the Welshman can expect the full works from McDonald in his first appearance since that world title triumph.
Extended field handed a premier opportunity to impress
Speaking to Stephen Bunting on our podcast just after his best run at Ally Pally, he admitted seeing his name included in the Masters was a surprise. Bunting, now up to 17th in the world after that semi-final run, is no stranger to a late call-up for the invitational event, having replaced the injured Gary Anderson in the field in 2019.
His invite this time round comes via the PDC’s decision to expand the field, from the top 16 to the top 24. Along with Bunting, the increase in numbers handed spots to Mensur Suljovic, Mervyn King, Chris Dobey, Simon Whitlock, Adrian Lewis, Jeffrey de Zwaan and Jonny Clayton.
The players ranked 17th to 24th will face players ranked ninth to 16th in Friday night’s opening session. All eight ties will be the best of 11 legs, which gives it the feel of a pre-Masters qualifier to win a place into the main event, as the rounds that follow are played over the longer distance of best of 19/21 legs.
There is also the added caveat of the 10th place in this year’s Premier League still vacant, and expected to be filled following the Masters. A big run in Milton Keynes next weekend could well decide who takes that spot.
A feast of long format leg-play on Saturday and Sunday
Looking through the calendar there are not many days when you will see eight best of 19 leg matches on TV. The change in format for the Masters in 2021 means that the two last 16 sessions will be played on the same day, on the Saturday.
While we won’t know the full line up for that day of matches until Friday’s first-round matches are completed, we do know that all of the world’s top eight will be in action.
The ‘big three’ of Gerwyn Price, Michael van Gerwen and Peter Wright headline the evening session, alongside recent world finalist Gary Anderson, while the afternoon session features Rob Cross, Nathan Aspinall, Dave Chisnall and James Wade.
The potential match-ups across the day are exciting and, although the Masters is unranked, there are plenty of players that a deep run in this event could be the catalyst for them to have a strong 2021 campaign.
An expected announcement on the 2021 calendar
For obvious reasons, the PDC are yet to release their planned calendar of tournaments for 2021. The Masters next weekend is currently the only event, involving tour-card holders, in the diary.
PDC tournament director Graham Fairhurst told us that he is hoping at some point next weekend there will be an announcement, with an outline of the PDC’s plans for the first few months of the new season.
A lot, you would imagine, rests on Q-School going ahead as planned next month and, once the full quota of 128 tour cards has been filled again, that Players Championship events will be returning not long after.
Given that the Masters is being televised on ITV, who have extended their deal to show PDC events until at least the end of 2022, it is likely that there will also be an update on this year’s UK Open during the broadcast.
The ‘FA Cup of Darts’ now traditionally takes place on the first weekend of March, which falls on the dates of 5-7 this year, and the safe bet would be on it being held behind closed doors and away from Minehead, and perhaps tagged onto the end of a Spring Series of floor events.
Listen to our Masters preview and chat with PDC tournament director Graham Fairhurst on the new Weekly Dartscast podcast. Available on iTunes, Spotify and all good podcast providers.