The BetVictor World Matchplay at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens is the highlight of darts ace Ronnie Baxter’s year and he’s delighted it’s just around the corner again.
But the 52-year-old qualifier faces a tough first-round draw against sixth seed Andy Hamilton.
Baxter’s affection for the event has been evident in his performances: he was a semi-finalist last year, losing out to ultimate winner Phil Taylor, and in 2009.
He has never won the event, though he was runner-up to Rod Harrington in 1998.
And he will never give up trying. Baxter told The Gazette: “Of all the tournaments this is my favourite one to play in because it’s Blackpool.
“I really want to win it, especially with a home crowd at the Winter Gardens.”
The draw could have been kinder, but in a tournament which sees 16 qualifiers from the Pro-Tour Order of Merit (among whom Baxter is one) drawn against the Professional Darts Corporation’s top 16, an ‘easy’ tie is out of the question.
“Yes, it’s a tough draw against Andy ... but they’re all like that nowadays,” said Baxter, who knows he will have to be at his best to make an impression against the big guns.
The tournament begins on Saturday week but Baxter must wait until the last match on day three to take the oche for the first time and sample that special Winter Gardens atmosphere.
The winner of his clash with Hamilton will face Robert Thornton or Ian White two days later, but Baxter won’t allow himself to think about the second round while he has a clash against ‘The Hammer’, who featured in this year’s McCoys Premier League, to focus on.
The pair have faced each other 10 times before in PDC tournaments, Stoke-based Hamilton winning seven.
Baxter knows he will start the match as underdog against the man who was runner-up in last year’s “World Championships and this year’s UK Open, but the Blackpool star hopes to make home advantage pay.
He admitted: “I have had an up and down season so far but there’s nothing like the Winter Gardens to bring the best out of me.”
The highpoint of his season has been reaching the quarter-final of the UK Open in Bolton, where he was edged out by Raymond van Barneveld 10-9 in a truly epic encounter.
Having lost the first three legs, Baxter took seven of the next eight only to see the Dutchman hit back to lead 9-8.
Baxter forced a deciding leg and missed a double for the mach before Barney sealed it on double eight.
But Baxter is only interested in looking forward and would relish an encounter with his close Fylde coast friend Wes Newton on home soil.
Baxter and Fleetwood-based seventh seed Newton are in the same half of the Blackpool draw and are possible semi-final adversaries, a match-up Baxter would love to be part of.
He added: “I get along great with Wes and we always room and travel together when we play overseas.”
Newton’s first round opponent Jamie Caven has never won a match at the Winter Gardens but does boast a good record against Wes.
n That 10-9 result from the Baxter/Van Barneveld showdown in Bolton can’t be repeated in Blackpool following a change of rules for this year’s tournament. Each tie in the World Matchplay must be won by two clear legs.
If only one leg separates the players when a match has run its scheduled course (first-round matches are best of 19), then up to five additional legs can be played for either player to forge a decisive two-leg lead. Should they fail to do so, the sixth extra leg will be sudden death.