Even in the apparently unchanging world of darts, time marches on. When the first matches in the Ladbrokes.com PDC World Championship got under way here in London last night the atmosphere was very different to what players and spectators had come to expect at the sport's premier event.
Ever since the Professional Darts Corporation broke away from the British Darts Organisation, taking the game's best players with it, the world championship had been staged every year at the Circus Tavern in Purfleet. However, after 14 festive seasons in the less than glamorous setting of urban Essex, the tournament has gone seriously upmarket and moved to Alexandra Palace. It is probably just as well: after the ban on smoking in public places, all concerned would no doubt have been seriously disorientated in a smoke-free Tavern.
In going to Ally Pally, darts is actually returning to what is regarded as the sport's spiritual home. The palace was the venue for the News of the World Darts Championship during the event's heyday as the most important competition in the calendar. Before the arrival of the world championship and regular television coverage, the News of the World, which anyone in the country could enter, was the contest everybody wanted to win.
If the stage set has changed, at least most of the cast remains unchanged. Phil Taylor again starts as hot favourite, with Raymond van Barneveld, who defeated the 13-times world champion in a sudden-death leg to win last year's final 7-6, expected to offer the greatest challenge.
Only three other players are priced at shorter than 33-1 by the sponsors: James Wade, now world No 3 after his victories in the World Matchplay and World Grand Prix, Terry Jenkins, who has reached five major finals in the last 18 months, and Adrian Lewis, Taylor's protg.
The former champion admitted that he lost his way after his defeat to Van Barneveld, but says he has been working hard and will be hard to beat. "I'll be a proper little scrapper, a tough cookie," he said. "If anyone beats me then fair play to them, but they will have to play well and fight hard."
Taylor says he will miss the Circus Tavern, but is looking forward to the challenge at Alexandra Palace, which has a capacity of 2,000, nearly double the Circus Tavern. "It's a great venue," he said. "It will be very different, but once I'm out there playing I don't think it will affect me."
Having lost to a Dutchman in his last appearance at the tournament, Taylor faces another on his return tonight. Michael van Gerwen is his first-round opponent and even though "Mighty Mike" is only 18 Taylor will not be underestimating him. Van Gerwen, who at 17 was the youngest player to appear in the BDO world championship, became the youngest ever winner of a major event when he won the World Masters 14 months ago.
The teenager first came to the attention of a wider audience when he entered the Norway Open youth championship. The organisers also allowed him to play in the senior event and he proceeded to win both events, claiming some major scalps along the way.Reuse content