When you flick through the annals of history with regards to individual sports, you’ll notice that most of these pursuits have been dominated by one man/woman at any given time.
There was Tiger Woods, who won 14 of golf’s majors in a reign of terror lasting more than a decade (1997-2007). There was snooker’s Stephen Hendry, who was number one in the world rankings for some nine years as he compiled a packed trophy cabinet that contains 18 major titles.
And then there’s Simone Biles, the outstanding 20-year-old gymnast who has four Olympic gold medals and ten World Championship golds to her name at a tender age that does not even allow her to legally drink alcohol in her homeland of America as yet (perhaps that’s part of the reason for her success!).
Darts has had not one but two dominant forces in recent times, with Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor racking up sixteen world titles between 1990 and 2013. He handed the baton – or rather, it was forcibly ripped from his grasp – by Michael van Gerwen, the follicly-challenged Dutchman who has won 43 tournaments in a two-year era of dominance. The mission for punters was simple; back the bookies favourite MVG and collect.
But all of the greats – your Woods’, your Hendry’s, your Novak Djokovic’s even – have endured a slump at some point in their career, for reasons professional (new players coming along to challenge, natural regression through age etc), or personal (the proverbial ‘taking of the eyes off the ball’, extra-marital dalliances etc). At the moment MVG, as he is known in the darting world, appears to be on the cusp of his annus horribilis.
Okay, so he has already claimed the Premier League and the Masters’ crowns this year as well as various World Series events wins, but after an 18-month spell in which he got his hands on every bit of silverware going, MVG’s trophy drought since the summer will be of concern. He did take down a European Tour event this past weekend, beating young upstart Rob Cross in the final, but as far as ranking event titles are concerned it’s….well, it’s been a while.
Also troubling will be that it has coincided with a number of significant events in the 28-year-old’s life. He has just become a father for the first time, which can often lead to diminished intensity in any young sportsperson’s life, and was practically booed off the stage at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens in defeat to Taylor at the World Matchplay – not the first time the sensitive Dutchman has been reduced to tears by a partisan crowd.
MVG is also a bit of a terror with mobile phone in hand. Back in 2015 it was revealed by a tabloid newspaper that he was embroiled in a sordid text message exchange with a woman other than his wife, and earlier this year he drew the ire of the wider darts community after texting fellow Dutch pro Vincent van der Voort ‘bye bye Whitlock’ after racing into an 8-2 interval lead at the World Matchplay against the Aussie, Simon Whitlock.
All of the above has coincided with a group stage exit from the Champions League of Darts, a first round defeat at the World Grand Prix and that emotional loss to Taylor in Blackpool.
Incidentally, after that first-round reverse at the hands of John Henderson in Dublin, MVG jetted off on a luxury holiday to Dubai. The Van Gerwen ‘of old’, you suspect, would have been straight back onto the practice board, rather than feeling the sand between his toes.
So is this the end of MVG’s darting dominance, or will he return better than ever in time for the World Championships in December?
While it would be foolish to write off the influence that Taylor has had on changing the face of darts forever – the Premier League final now headlines the O2 Arena in London, rather than the Glades Arena in Kidderminster - you could argue that MVG has done more to push the game forward; to his own detriment, in some respects.
The best way to explain that is by examining the world record televised three-dart averages through the ages, which show just how far the sport has progressed:
1991 – Phil Taylor (107.49)
1997 – Phil Taylor (113.43)
2009 – Phil Taylor (118.14)
2016 – Michael van Gerwen (123.40)
Those incredible statistics show just how brilliant Taylor has been for two decades, but also how MVG has taken darts to a whole new level.
What was noticeable during Taylor’s years of success was that his opponents simply could not live with him: whether through a lack of skill, a lack of professionalism or that ‘fear factor’ that all great champions possess.
In the modern era the top 16 players in the world, in particular, are playing more darts and more regularly against MVG, and they are thus getting better as a result – cue stronger, more consistent performances. For context, Gary Anderson lost in the 2017 World Championship final with an average of 104.93 over ten sets of battle, and MVG himself averaged nearly 106 in defeat to Raymond van Barneveld in 2016.
All great champions raise the bar – and generally drag the standard of play up with them. Stephen Hendry’s brilliance necessitated the likes of John Higgins, Ronnie O’Sullivan and Mark Williams, while Tiger Woods ran into Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Vijay Singh – and helped to develop a number of young stars such as Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth, who took the Woods blueprint and ran with it.
Now, MVG has Anderson, Peter Wright, Daryl Gurney and Mensur Suljovic to push him along, and the older guard like Taylor and Van Barneveld who still have an outstanding performance or two in them.
The great sportsmen raise their game at the right time, of course, and in darts they don’t come much bigger than the World Championship at Alexandra Palace.
It’s fair to say that Van Gerwen has done exactly that at ‘Ally Pally’, reaching three of the last five finals and winning a pair of those.
The two aberrations on his CV are that defeat to Barney where he averaged an obscene 105.78 despite defeat in the third round, while in 2015 he again averaged over a hundred in going down to Anderson in the last four. By all accounts, he’s unlucky to not have more than World trophies in the cabinet.
The good news for punters is that MVG’s recent malaise has caused his price for the 2018 Worlds (the final takes place in January) to drift: the Dutchman is now available at an odds-against mark of around 11/10.
He’s got a few big ranking events to come this year – the European Championship, the Players’ Championship and the Grand Slam of Darts – in which to sharpen up and rediscover his best form prior to a tournament that, generally, has been kind to him.
The greatest sportsmen and women in history have bounced back from a period of malaise; later this year we’ll find out just how great Michael van Gerwen is.