Paul Higham talks us through the next ranking title event, the World Matchplay Darts, as he foresees a surprise winner in Blackpool.
It’s second only to the World Championship in terms of its standing on the darting calendar, with the World Matchplay being a premier tournament packed with history taking place in an iconic venue.
Blackpool and darts go hand-in-hand, and the Winter Gardens provides a unique backdrop to the top-quality tungsten tossing action that will take place beside the seaside.
Temperatures will be soaring outside on Blackpool promenade but there’ll be some red-hot darts inside a sweltering Winter Gardens too as world champion Peter Wright looks to defend his World Matchplay title.
It’s Michael van Gerwen who leads the betting though as the 11/2 favourite to land the coveted Phil Taylor Trophy and the whopping £200,000 first prize, with Wright and world number two Gerwyn Price both 7/1 chances.
With plenty of players in great form on the tour though it should be a pulsating week of action – and don’t forget we’ll have the inaugural Women’s World Matchplay taking place on the final Sunday, July 24, just to add to the mix.
Who are the main contenders?
Peter Wright – 7/1
The defending champion, the reigning world champion and the current world number one, it’s fair to say Peter Wright has a lot going for him! And yet he’s not favourite for the title here as ‘Snakebite’ hasn’t been picking up any major titles since his Alexandra Palace success.
You write off the two-time world champion at your peril though, as he does all his best work on the big stages, and knowing how to do it here, in this legs-only format, is key as well as you can’t take a set off like you can in the worlds.
Wright can operate at a level few can match, as only Phil Taylor himself has eclipsed his 104.91 average for last year’s tournament. His odds here reflect the fact he’d have to go through Jonny Clayton and Michael van Gerwen just to make the final.
Michael van Gerwen – 11/2
Mighty Mike has shown signs of getting somewhere near his best, especially when winning the Premier League again earlier this year, and the two-time winner and three-time finalist here only lost in last year’s semis thanks to Wright producing the highest ever match average in a World Matchplay semi-final – and the seventh best in tournament history.
The Dutchman’s big asset in this format is that he can win four, five, six legs in the blink of an eye and elevate his darts to stratospheric levels that few, if any, can match, but the huge negative is the draw.
I do question MVG’s place as tournament favourite when he’s in the toughest quarter, which starts right away with a tricky test against former two-time world champion Adrian Lewis (who won a ProTour event just last week).
Premier League runner-up Joe Cullen will likely be next before one of world number five James Wade, serial ProTour winner Luke Humphries or two-time TV tournament champion Nathan Aspinall – and that’s all before meeting possibly Wright or Clayton in the semis!
Gerwyn Price – 7/1
The Iceman’s form has been pretty cold this season, with a hand injury no doubt causing the majority of his struggles, and this doesn’t look like the venue where he could get his mojo back.
Price has never been beyond the quarter-finals in seven appearances in the event, and in fact he’s had more first-round defeats than wins at the Winter Gardens (4-3). The world number two faces German debutant Martin Schindler in the first round, which will not be easy.
Price obviously has the ability to challenge, but you’d want to see a lot better course form to back him in this event.
Jonny Clayton – 8/1
He’s only the world number eight, but Welshman Clayton is one of darts’ ‘big four’ and is always near the head of the betting in these big TV events – given he’s won five of them over the last couple of years.
His ranking has landed him in a tough quarter alongside the last two winners of the event – Peter Wright and Dimitri Van den Bergh – meaning he may have to beat both just to make the semi-finals.
Coupled with his tough route he’s got a poor record here, much like fellow Welshman Price, as he’s only won one match in four appearances in the event.
Michael Smith – 10/1
Could the big four become a big five? While that looks disrespectful to James Wade, in terms of the bookies it’s Michael Smith who is on the verge of joining the big guns – as he should be as the world number three.
It took some time for Bully Boy to get over losing the World Championship final in January and then lost an 11-10 heartbreaker in the UK Open final – which was his seventh major final defeat as darts’ ultimate bridesmaid still awaits his maiden major title.
He’s got the likes of Gary Anderson in his quarter of the draw and some lively outsiders, but I don’t see anyone living with him at his best, so he’s probably the pick of the bets for winning quarters. He was a beaten finalist here in 2019 and has also made the semis and quarters in his last two appearances, and this could work out to be yet another chance for him to break that major duck.
Bet: Michael Smith to win the fourth quarter at 5/2
Who else to look out for?
Luke Humphries (10/1) has been the breakout star of the season with five titles to his name – including four big European Tour events in the last three months. He’s only played in this once before, but he’s reached three World Championship quarter-finals in the last four years, so knows how to handle the big stage pressure.
It’s a killer of a draw, including a huge first-round clash with Nathan Aspinall, but nothing seems to faze ‘Cool Hand Luke’ so having to come through the likes of James Wade, Van Gerwen, Clayton or Wright just to get to the final certainly won’t bother him.
Bet: Luke Humphries to win the second quarter at 3/1
James Wade complains a lot about being overlooked, and he definitely has a case as he’s fifth in the world and won 10 major titles, including the World Matchplay, yet is a huge 33/1 outsider in Blackpool.
The Machine has reached six finals here and is a wily old match player, so wouldn’t it be just like him to see off young upstarts to cause a huge upset? Perhaps not, but he’s a big price for someone with his talent and record.
Third quarter could be wide open
With Price’s record what it is in this tournament, he could be the most vulnerable of the favourites, and that opens up an intriguing section including former Matchplay winner and world champion Rob Cross (18/1).
Jose de Sousa also has issues so maybe Dave Chisnell could go deep as a 40/1 outsider and make a bid for a first major title after losing six finals. He’s a six-time quarter-finalist at the Matchplay and made the final of this year’s Masters, so good form isn’t too far away.
In what could be a coin toss of a quarter, he is also a decent shout to at least make it to the last eight again for the seventh time.
Bet: Dave Chisnall to win the third quarter at 7/1
Any first-round upsets on the cards?
The top 16 in the PDC Order of Merit are drawn against 16 qualifiers from the ProTour rankings in the opening round best-of-19 legs matches, and it’s thrown up some absolute belters as a result.
Humphries v Aspinall and Van Gerwen v Lewis being the highlights, but there also could be some upset wins, going on the bookies’ odds.
Martin Schindler to beat Gerwyn Price – 11/5
Let’s start with the big one, and after going on about Price’s poor record here I’ll have to back the German to take this huge scalp on his debut. He’s well capable.
Daryl Gurney to beat Gary Anderson – 6/5
Anderson has won this tournament, but Gurney has a great record against the Scotsman on the TV stage and Anderson may just be feeling his age these days.
Callan Rydz to beat Dimitri Van den Bergh – 7/4
Dancing Dimitri has made the last two finals of this, winning in 2020 and losing out to Wright last year, but Rydz is a star in the making, as he showed with his quarter-final run at the worlds. He made the quarters of this last season when he nailed a maximum 170 checkout, and he can catch the Belgian off guard in their first meeting.
Here come the girls!
The Women’s World Matchplay is also being played for the very first time in Blackpool, with eight players battling it out on Sunday July 24 for the £10,000 first prize.
Lisa Ashton is the very worthy 5/4 favourite and that price could actually prove to be a bit of a steal given how dominant she’s been this season.
Ashton won seven of the 12 events on the PDC Women’s Series and the four-time BDO world champion has been regularly mixing it on the men’s tour.
Fallen Sherrock made the biggest noise on that front when winning matches at Alexandra Palace, and she’s the 13/8 second favourite after winning three of the Women’s Series events this year.
As first and second seeds they’re scheduled to meet in the final, and that’s exactly how it should play out, but you’ve got to back Ashton given she looks to have everyone else’s number.
Bet: Lisa Ashton to win the Women’s Matchplay at 5/4