On New Year’s Day 2019, Michael van Gerwen returned to the top of the darts tree. A double 16 in the fourth leg of the tenth set at Alexandra Palace saw him beat Michael Smith 7-3 to clinch the PDC World Championship for the third time in his career.
The Dutch star had endured his share of struggles in 2018, which followed his surprise exit from the 2018 World Championship at the hands of eventual winner Rob Cross. Although he won several trophies during the year and headed to Alexandra Palace as the number one seed, he had not been at his dominant best, failing to defend his European Championship, World Series Finals and Grand Slam titles, and he lost in the final of the Players Championship.
However, the biggest darts stage of all brought out the best in the world number one. Van Gerwen dropped only five sets in five matches as he cruised to the final, dispatching Gary Anderson 6-1 in the semi-final to set up a battle with rising star Smith. The final itself set a record as the first since 1983 to feature two under-30s, but the outcome was rarely in doubt as Van Gerwen twice opened up four-set leads before eventually sealing a comfortable victory to get his hands on the trophy.
After a year of ups and downs, is Van Gerwen ready to take on the mantle of the darts world’s dominant power, in the post-Taylor era? How likely is it that we will see another Van Gerwen world title early in 2020? His victory over Smith took him past Anderson, Adrian Lewis and John Part into a clear second place in the all-time winners list. He is still an incredible 11 world titles behind the legendary Phil Taylor, and has yet to exert the same total dominance over his peers that Taylor managed, despite being arguably the most naturally gifted world champion ever.
However, that could be set to change in 2019. Picking up that third world title seems to have spurred on the Dutchman to greater heights, and he has started the year in a hurry. At the beginning of February, he clinched his fifth Masters title, beating James Wade 11-5 in the final. He then delivered another statement of intent when winning the first and third Players Championship events of the season, in the process winning his 70th and 71st Pro Tour titles, a total that significantly beats Taylor’s record.
Some of Taylor’s other records are not immediately under threat. Although Van Gerwen is second in the winners lists for the World Championship, the World Matchplay and the World Grand Prix, he is long a way behind Taylor’s totals. However, he has already surpassed Taylor in terms of Players Championship titles, and this year, victory in the European Championship would see him establish a new record of five career wins. He can also close the gap in the UK Open and Grand Slam of Darts winners lists to just two, making it feasible that he will eventually surpass Taylor’s feats.
However, as well as chasing Taylor’s records, Van Gerwen will have to keep looking over his shoulder. He may have the beating of the likes of Wade, Anderson and the other old hands, but the modern darts scene is incredibly competitive, arguably more so than in Taylor’s heyday. This means that darts punters studying the odds for next season’s PDC World Championship have a lot of options to consider as they weigh up their wagers or mull over their selections.
Van Gerwen faces a host of up-and-coming challenges from the likes of beaten World Championship finalist Smith, 2017 winner Cross, and rising star Daryl Gurney. As the sport continues to grow in popularity, we can be sure that ever younger professionals will be entering the arena.
That is, after all, how Van Gerwen arrived on the global darts stage, breaking through in 2012 at the age of 22 and winning his first World Championship title two years later. The ultimate test for Van Gerwen will be how well he is able to fight off those challenges as they arise. But for now, there is no doubt that the Dutch superstar is the best player in world darts, and while there will be many ups and downs in 2019, it would be no surprise to see him celebrating a fourth world title next January.