A new era begins for the BetVictor World Matchplay tonight as Michael van Gerwen, Rob Cross, Peter Wright and their fellow stars of the Professional Darts Corporation begin the challenge to succeed the legendary Phil Taylor as the king of the Blackpool event.
Taylor claimed his 16th title in a 24-year period at last summer’s World Matchplay before retiring from darts at the turn of the year.
The PDC swiftly renamed the World Matchplay’s prestigious award ‘The Phil Taylor Trophy’ to recognise his dominance of the Winter Gardens event.
Only two-time winner van Gerwen and 2007 champion James Wade have previously won the World Matchplay from this year’s 32-player field – and the world number one is aiming to make his own mark on the tournament over the next nine days.
“The World Matchplay is one of the biggest tournaments of the year,” said van Gerwen, who lost out to Taylor in the 2017 quarter-finals.
“To win any trophy is nice but this is a huge tournament and it would be really special to win it for a third time.
“The venue is phenomenal and there is always a great crowd in who get behind me every year.
“Phil did well there in the past but times change. You can’t stand still and think about the past – you have to move forward and try to win the tournament.
“I’ve had the pressure of being the best player on my shoulders for a few years now but I can handle it.”
Van Gerwen plays fellow countryman Jeffrey de Zwaan in the first round – and is on guard after seeing the youngster claim a shock victory when they met in March’s UK Open.
“I will be a huge favourite to win the game even though he beat me in the UK Open,” added Van Gerwen.
“I know it will not be an easy game but maybe he will be a bit nervous, with it being his first time in Blackpool.
“I’m confident I will get the win. There are so many good players on the circuit now, and you have to make sure you play well and don’t make any mistakes, but I think the format suits my game.”
Two-time world champion Gary Anderson has won the UK Open and US Darts Masters so far this year but has never previously reached the World Matchplay final.
The Scot plays Stephen Bunting in the first round tomorrow and is aiming to bounce back from a shock exit to Hong Kong’s Royden Lam in Shanghai last week with a consistent showing in Blackpool.
“If I turn up and play my game like I did in Vegas, I’ll be fine,” said Anderson.
“If I turn up like I did (in Shanghai) we’ll see what happens, but I’m looking forward to it though.”
“I’ve played some good stuff and then some terrible stuff, so it’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
“Nowadays every round in every tournament is hard, but the World Matchplay is a lot of the boys’ favourite and they’re there to win, so it does make it harder.”
The opening night sees Premier League finalist Michael Smith start his Blackpool challenge against in-form Welshman Jonny Clayton.
Smith claimed his first TV title in Shanghai last weekend, and admitted: “I can’t wait to get there now.
“I’m playing better on the stage recently. I’ve been more consistent and feel good about my game.
“Hopefully I can take my form into the World Matchplay and have a decent run there. I don’t like coming close – I want to be the winner and take titles home with me.
“Jonny is one of the toughest draws I could have got.
“He’s been playing well all year but if I play my game I’m confident I will win.”
The opening night also features Morecambe-based Dave Chisnall against former world youth champion Keegan Brown and 2013 finalist Adrian Lewis meeting James Wilson.
Tomorrow’s s double session features new world champion Cross playing Mervyn King and popular Dutchman Raymond van Barneveld against Australia’s Kyle Anderson.
Wright, the 2017 runner-up, faces Jelle Klaasen as the first round concludes on Monday, when Wade plays Wattimena in another big encounter.
The second round is played across Tuesday and Wednesday, with the quarter-finals on Thursday and Friday ahead of Saturday’s semi-finals and the climax on Sunday, with the winner of the final scooping a £115,000 top prize and the Phil Taylor Trophy.
While Taylor has retired from playing, the World Matchplay great will be in Blackpool during the week as part of Sky Sports’ commentary team alongside presenter Dave Clark and former finalist Wayne Mardle.
Any remaining tickets for the World Matchplay can be purchased from the Winter Gardens box office on Church Street, or by calling 0844 856 1111.