The 2021 PDC ProTour season got under way last week in Bolton with the first of three planned Super Series. The four-day block of Players Championship events saw four different players win titles, as well as four nine-dart finishes. SAM CARTER picks out five players who had a good week and five players who had a bad week in our first Five Up, Five Down of the season…
ProTour form has never really been Joe Cullen’s problem. Heading into 2021, he was a three-time Players Championship winner a two-time European Tour winner. A successful four days in Bolton has sent Cullen to the top of the ProTour Order of Merit.
He bagged his fourth Players Championship title of his career at the earliest opportunity on Thursday night where, ironically, he seemed to save his worst game of the day for the final. Cullen was rock solid on his doubles throughout the day and managed to beat Jonny Clayton in a deciding leg in the final. On Friday, he looked set for another deep run before being surprisingly stopped by the evergreen Steve Beaton in the last 16.
Gerwyn Price’s withdrawal after day two resulted in Cullen getting promoted to number one seed for Saturday’s event. He blasted his way to the final, averaging 100+ more often than not. Sadly, for the Yorkshireman he couldn’t stop the fairy-tale run of Raymond van Barneveld and claimed the runners up spot, before matching Friday’s effort on Sunday and having a good run to the last 16.
This is the start of the season that Cullen would have wanted and will hopefully translate itself on to the stage. If he wasn’t already, he certainly has to be in the conversation to scoop a TV title this year.
Tyneside is one of darts’ biggest hotbeds and it has a new star in Callan Rydz. The 22-year-old, from Bedlington, has been tipped for big things for a couple of years now and has had the performances in patches to back the hype up, including two first round wins in his two appearances at the World Championship.
At the start of this season he was looking likely to retain his two-year tour card for next year. That tour card is now good for at least another season, as Rydz ran out the winner of Friday’s event, propelling himself into the top 64.
His first three wins were all close affairs, but he followed this up by only dropping three legs in his next three matches on the way to the final, where he held his nerve to beat Jonny Clayton 8-7 to land his first ProTour title.
Rydz never lost his first match across the four days and backed up his win with two last 32 efforts. As a result of his victory and other decent results, Rydz has put himself well in contention for the World Matchplay, which would be a great achievement in his fledgling career.
A new tour card holder for 2021, Alan Soutar has made a great start to life on the ProTour. Hailing from Arbroath, the Scot was a man who I foolishly neglected from my 10 new tour card holders to watch out for list and has gone on to earn the second most of the new crop of players during the Super Series last week.
Thursday’s event gave Soutar a brutal three games to open up his PDC career, but he stood up to the test excellently, defeating Adrian Lewis and Dave Chisnall in deciding legs. It was third time unlucky in deciding legs on the day for Soutar in the last 32, bowing out to eventual finalist Jonny Clayton.
The 2013 WDF World Cup winner had another good day on Friday, defeating fellow Scot Peter Wright in the first round 6-2 with an average of 105, before once again exiting in the last 32 in a deciding leg. Saturday was Soutar’s best effort yet, reaching the quarter-finals, a run which included a 6-2 victory over Nathan Aspinall, before being swept aside by eventual winner Raymond van Barneveld.
Sunday’s effort was less impressive, being eliminated in the last 64, but this won’t worry Soots too much. His efforts before were all impressive enough to put the darting world on notice and there’s no reason he can’t be in contention for a maiden PDC title during 2021.
Raymond van Barneveld
Barney’s first two days were not how he planned to return to action, losing his first match on Thursday to Stephen Bunting in a deciding leg and losing in the same manner on Friday in the last 64 to Danny Noppert. With only a narrow 6-5 victory over Ryan Murray to show for his return after the first half of the series you could have been forgiven for being sceptical about how well his return was going to go.
Van Barneveld’s Saturday draw made for ugly reading, with former world champions Rob Cross and Adrian Lewis on his board along with one of the most in form players in the world in Meryvn King. But Barney got himself into the last 16 by beating King in that now familiar deciding leg before recording 6-1, 6-2 and 7-3 victories to meet up with Thursday’s champion Joe Cullen in the final.
It was a see-saw final and at 4-2 it was looking like Cullen might achieve two tournament wins in three days, but van Barneveld took four of the next five legs to lead and he held his nerve to win 8-6 in a 14th leg that was laden with missed darts at double from both players.
The manner of winning I’m sure wouldn’t bother van Barneveld though and he has now won his first PDC ranking tournament in a whopping seven-and-a-half years. Sunday’s effort was a little disappointing, however Damon Heta was on a tear all day en route to the final, so losing to him in that form is no disgrace. I’m sure there will still be a minority of naysayers out there but Barney has shown what he is still capable of and the sky could be the limit for his return after this huge win for him.
The man who I think will have the biggest smile on his face after this weekend will be Jonny Clayton. The Welshman managed to claim the most amount of prize money over the weekend out of every player to attend the Super Series and his performances are proof, if it was really needed, that his Masters win was no fluke and that being picked for the last Premier League spot was a great decision by the PDC.
The Ferret had a great first two days, making the final on both occasions. It looked as though luck wasn’t going to be on his side though, losing 8-7 in both finals, perhaps falling victim to losing the bull off at the start of the match for the privilege of throwing first and subsequently lost on both occasions.
A good showing to the quarter-finals followed on Saturday, before finally getting over the line in the final and defeating Damon Heta 8-6 on Sunday to scoop his third Players Championship. Not bad for a plasterer!
You would feel now that Clayton will be a name to avoid in the lottery that is the UK Open draw and he will approach the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes full of confidence.
After a couple of years of inconsistency, all the signs were pointing to an upturn in form for The Wizard. The Australian had good runs in the World Matchplay, World Grand Prix and the Grand Slam of Darts after the initial Spring lockdown and also played some good stuff in the World Championship and the Masters, despite two early exits in those tournaments.
I was expecting a good season from Whitlock, however this is not the start he will have wanted, with just two wins to show for his efforts over the Super Series. I would expect Whitlock usually to win his board final and go on to the last 16 at least once out of four tournaments, but in truth he never got near this stage, failing to get past round one on two occasions and losing in round two on two occasions.
The man from Down Under also rarely threatened to get near an average in the high 90s. Even at this early stage, all eyes look to the qualifying spots for the World Matchplay and Whitlock will have some work to do in the coming months if he wants to grace the Blackpool stage in July for the 12th straight time.
Dimitri Van den Bergh
Despite winning nine times on the Development Tour, which is held in a very similar setting to the ProTour, it’s easy to forget that Dancing Dimi has failed to win a ProTour title. He seems to have a reputation for losing matches with big averages on tour and that was the case again this weekend, in one particular instance losing to Stephen Bunting in the last 64 despite averaging 13.5 more points than him in a 6-5 defeat.
One solitary win in a four-day series is simply not good enough from the World Matchplay champion, who will be keen to address this lack of form before his debut season as a full Premier League player, which of course will take place behind closed doors like these Player Championship events.
Van Den Bergh’s low seeding in most of the Players Championship Finals he has qualified for tells us he may not flourish or enjoy these events but his sky high losing averages, his CV full of Development Tour titles and the fact that he’s made two finals in Players Championship events means he certainly is capable.
I’m not 100% clear on how The Dream Maker is feeling physically after knee surgery, but he will be looking to improve on his poor results in this series come the middle of March when the ProTour returns. His Matchplay win last year means he is safe in the rankings for a long time so the pressure is off and I’m sure he can turn his form around; everyone knows the ability he has after all.
Speaking of the World Matchplay, one man who has a lot of work to do to make the tournament is Adrian Lewis. His disappointing exit to Danny Baggish at the World Championship left Jackpot in 24th place in the Order of Merit, the lowest he has been for at least 15 years.
He had a good Masters, pushing Gerwyn Price close in the quarter-finals and had plenty of positives to take into the first ranking tournaments of the year in what, in my opinion, is his biggest season in a long time to try and get back in to the top echelons of the game.
Lewis didn’t get past the last 64 in four attempts. He did play some good stuff and regularly went down with a fight but the opportunities were there for him to progress further. Lewis missed match darts in two last 64 games over the series and blew a 3-0 lead against Jeff Smith.
He will know the magnitude of this season and I’m sure will work hard to get his season back on track, this after all is an early setback. Despite the results not going his way at least he knows come the PDC awards at the end of the season he’ll receive a nice shiny silver pin badge as a result of his fantastic nine darter on Friday.
Michael van Gerwen
Come the end of Saturday’s event, I had a few names for both the Five Up or Five Down category in mind and for the most part Sunday’s tournament things further reassured me of the players to put in each category, except for this entry.
I don’t know if I’m expecting too much from MVG or whether I am justified in thinking he’ll be disappointed with how this series has panned out, but I still feel as though van Gerwen believe he can and should win every tournament he enters.
The Green Machine had high averages in most of his wins but seemed to be punished for every dip he suffered, firstly being defeated by debutant Lewis Williams in the last 32 on Thursday. On Friday he went one better, reaching the last 16, but continued his recent trend of struggling against Jonny Clayton as the Welshman defeated him 6-1.
Van Gerwen then suffered a first round exit to Darius Labanauskas on Saturday, before having a deep run to the semi-finals on Sunday where he was ousted by eventual runner up Damon Heta. As a result of this semi-final run I had serious doubt on filing MVG under the disappointed category, but all things considered I think he will still be leaving Greater Manchester more disappointed than most players and his wallet lighter than he would have liked.
Last year’s Challenge Tour Order of Merit winner had a weekend to forget in Bolton, failing to win his first round game on every single occasion and never really getting close. His draws weren’t the easiest, rather unfortunately drawing James Wade on Thursday and Friday, former Euro Tour winner Max Hopp on Saturday and eventual finalist Damon Heta on the Sunday.
But the manner in which he lost these games is what I think will worry Evans, only managing to muster four legs across the four tournaments and only getting above 80 in the averages on a single occasion.
This is not the end of the world for Stretch as there are still plenty of darts to play this year, but he’ll certainly be keen to not repeat these performances in the next Super Series.
Luckily these days in darts there’s always a chance around the corner to play your way out of poor form so it wouldn’t surprise me if the 31-year-old does some damage this coming weekend in the UK Open. You don’t get to the top of the Challenge Tour rankings by fluke after all.