Tuesday, 7 June 2011

2011 UK Open - Super Sunday

Now that the dust has had time to settle, and those in different time zones are in no danger of having the result prematurely revealed... :o)

Ask a theologian about the symbolism of baptism, particularly full-immersion baptism, and he or she will probably say that in the ritual a person dies to their old self and rises to new life.

James Wade's performance on Sunday embodied exactly the same principle. In his quarter final against Nicholson and his semi final against Mark Webster, both class players at the top of their games, Wade seemed dead and buried, when suddenly a rare slip by his opponent followed up with a cracking check out by the Machine turned him into a born-again darting superstar. His posture and expression perceptibly changed, his throwing action suddenly seemed more confident, any doubt about where his darts were going to land simply disappeared; the transformation was remarkable.

To come back from 7-3 adrift against Mark Webster, who by any standards was throwing brilliantly and had himself managed a terrific resurgence when all hope seemed lost, was a demonstration of sheer sporting class, and also stamina. Nicholson also demonstrated these attributes, but taking down first Anderson and then Taylor is no easy task and against Wade he lacked the sparkling energy he had shown in his previous two matches. Not that he didn't play superbly; it just wasn't enough to hold off Wade.

It would have taken a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Mark Webster. Having played a brilliant tournament, on the back of a Premier League performance which made Eddie the Eagle's 1988 Winter Olympics look successful, he went from being on top of the world to looking utterly crushed in a matter of a few darts. Still, if he's proved anything in this tournament it's his ability to get back on his feet and throw like a darting genius again.

And what of Wes Newton? He too proved his quality throughout the tournament (and has earned himself a well-deserved place in the Grand Slam of Darts), but against a James Wade who by the time he got to the final was walking on darting water the result was rarely in doubt; his resurgence from 4-3 down to 6-4 ahead provided a glimmer of hope for the Newton camp (and a period of nail-biting and boyfriend's-arm-twisting for my girlfriend, who had spent all day on an emotional roller-coaster :o) ), but it was short-lived as Wade took the next 4 legs on the spin.

Newton himself had taken down Denis Ovens to reach the final; Ovens had first roasted Andy Smith and then done 'Mile High' Mark Hylton to a turn to earn his place in the semis for the second time in two years - proving, in my humble opinion, that the Heat is a top notch darter who deserves to be recognised as more than just a floor player - but against Newton the Heat was on the blink, missing too many trebles and doubles to stay in contention.

So, what does this cracking tournament mean for the future?

For me, there was only one slight niggle in this tournament; I wish we'd been able to see more of the matches apart from those on the main stage - Reece Robinson v. Andy Smith, for example. Perhaps those staging and broadcasting the tournament could bear that in mind for next year, as I bet I'm by no means the only one thinking that.

Much has and will be said about the fact that Taylor and Barney were conspicuous by their absence in the latter stages. Barney just doesn't look like he's enjoying playing darts at the moment, and that really is a worry. Love for the game, coupled with ambition, is what makes a professional sportsman - it enables them to practice hard and travel the world playing in every tournament going. In any job, people who don't enjoy what they're doing lose their edge, and if Barney can't get himself back to a point where he enjoys what he's doing he may be looking at hanging up his darts shirt, which would be a great shame but is a decision only Barney can make.

Taylor's a different matter; he clearly still loves playing darts and competing. He's had a poor (by his stratospheric standards) run of form lately, but that can happen to anyone; the question is, as he gets older, can he come back? Personally, I think Taylor will astonish us yet, even if he never regains the invincibility he once had. A large part of the reason for his reduced invincibility is not his declining, but the inexorably rising standards amongst younger players, who've had him as a role model, and that's great for the sport. We have to bear in mind that whilst Taylor didn't reach the finals, neither did Gary Anderson or Adrian Lewis, and no one's suggesting they're declining. The whole point of the UK Open is that these things can happen - look at Mervyn King.

There are more terrific players out there than ever before, and they have long careers ahead of them to prove their worth - if that doesn't promise a glittering future for darts, I don't know what does :o)

Congratulations and thanks to all the players for all the great entertainment they've given us. Next stop Blackpool and the World Matchplay :o)

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