Darts ace Taylor prepares for Blackpool swansong
THE 2017 BetVictor World Matchplay begins on Saturday, with nine days of action in Blackpool seeing Phil Taylor making his final Winter Gardens appearance as Michael van Gerwen bids for a third successive title.
A total of 32 players will compete for a tournament-record £500,000 in prize money, including a first prize of £115,000 for the eventual champion.
Legendary star Taylor, though, is driven by his desire to win the title for an amazing 16th time as he makes his farewell appearance in Blackpool.
The 56-year-old will retire at the end of the year, and has enjoyed 15 wins in 23 years of the World Matchplay, as well as hitting two nine-dart finishes on the Winter Gardens stage.
"I've got good memories from there and it's my favourite tournament," said Taylor, who opens his challenge against Gerwyn Price on Sunday. "I do love the Matchplay so I'm looking forward to finishing there.
"It's the place itself. The crowds have always been good at Blackpool but I love that venue. It's something I fell in love with. I'm going to enjoy it.
"There's no pressure on me now. I've got nothing to prove and if I don't win then it's not the end of the world for me now."
World Champion and world number one Van Gerwen is aiming to become only the second player, after Taylor, to win three successive World Matchplay titles.
The Dutchman is on a high following his World Series of Darts triumphs in Shanghai and Las Vegas this month, and is in a positive mood ahead of his clash with Stephen Bunting on Monday night.
"It's a fantastic tournament - after the World Championship it's the biggest ranking tournament there is and I've been playing well over there," said Van Gerwen, the 4/6 pre-tournament favourite with sponsors BetVictor.
"Last year I won against Phil Taylor and I hope I can retain the title this year. It's a format and a tournament that I like, a long format and that suits me, so I'm really looking forward to going back.
"I'll approach it like any other TV tournament. It's a tournament you want to win, one of the biggest ones and the pressure comes anyway. You need a bit of pressure to play well and I hope I can keep doing what I've been doing over the last few months."
Saturday's high profile opening night will see the only other former World Matchplay winner, James Wade, taking on Darren Webster as he aims to continue his love affair with the Winter Gardens.
Wade - also a five-time finalist alongside his 2007 triumph - said: "It's my favourite tournament. I love the crowd there and I like the format - it's a great format and in my opinion it's the most reflective format in the game.
"In the World Championship you can win less legs and win the game; I think that almost eats away in the back of my mind sometimes.
"It's a very enjoyable tournament and close to my heart. I tend to relax there and enjoy myself.
"I've got some great memories and I've enjoyed some great moments of my career there and seen some amazing games. I've been involved in, personally, some great games there, I love it."
The World Matchplay is the only PDC televised ranking event which world number two Gary Anderson has not yet reached the final of, with the Scot set to take on Christian Kist in his first round tie on Saturday.
"I'll be giving it my best but I've always seemed to struggle in Blackpool," said Anderson, the 9/2 second favourite. "I've made the semis a couple of times but I've never really felt comfortable there.
"That might change this week, you never know. I'll take each game as it comes and see what happens."
The tournament opens on Saturday when former World Youth Champion Michael Smith comes up against debutant Steve West, while flamboyant world number three Peter Wright, March's UK Open champion, meets another Blackpool newcomer, James Wilson.
The first round continues with a double session on Sunday, with the afternoon's action including Jelle Klaasen up against Justin Pipe, Robert Thornton meeting Spanish debutant Cristo Reyes, Benito van de Pas taking on Daryl Gurney and Mensur Suljovic facing John Henderson.
Dave Chisnall opens the evening session against Mervyn King before Taylor plays Price, with Raymond van Barneveld then playing Joe Cullen and Kim Huybrechts facing Alan Norris.
The first round concludes on Monday, with Van Gerwen's tie with Bunting accompanied by the all-Australian clash between Simon Whitlock and Kyle Anderson, former finalist Adrian Lewis against Steve Beaton and Ian White playing newcomer Rob Cross.
While Van Gerwen is the odds-on 4/6 favourite with BetVictor to take the title, Taylor is a 20/1 chance to claim his 16th World Matchplay crown, with Anderson the 9/2 second favourite and Wright 11/2 as he seeks a second TV title.
There have been record ticket sales for the BetVictor World Matchplay in 2017, although a limited number of tickets are still available from the Winter Gardens Box Office by calling 0844 856 111 or online at www.wintergardensblackpool.co.uk.
BetVictor World Matchplay
First Round Schedule of Play
Saturday July 22 (7pm)
Michael Smith v Steve West
James Wade v Darren Webster
Gary Anderson v Christian Kist
Peter Wright v James Wilson
Sunday July 23
Afternoon Session (1pm)
Jelle Klaasen v Justin Pipe
Robert Thornton v Cristo Reyes
Benito van de Pas v Daryl Gurney
Mensur Suljovic v John Henderson
Evening Session (7.30pm)
Dave Chisnall v Mervyn King
Phil Taylor v Gerwyn Price
Raymond van Barneveld v Joe Cullen
Kim Huybrechts v Alan Norris