Michael van Gerwen survived a scare to kick off his William Hill World Championship title defence with victory over his compatriot Jelle Klaasen, on an evening which also saw wins for Kim Huybrechts and Luke Humphries at Alexandra Palace.
Van Gerwen is the overwhelming favourite to lift a fourth world title on New Year’s Day, having scooped four of the last six major televised events. However, he was well-below par for large periods and had to recover from a set behind to shake off a spirited Klaasen on a dramatic opening night.
‘The Cobra’ crashed in seven maximums against ‘Mighty Mike’ but was unable to build on a promising start and Van Gerwen rectified matters to record a 13th consecutive victory over his arch-nemesis, in a contest which again featured no handshakes and minimal eye-contact between the pair.
Elsewhere, World Youth champion Luke Humphries continued his fine form to overcome Devon Petersen, whilst former Premier League star Kim Huybrechts prevailed in a gruelling affair to see off Development Tour star Geert Nentjes.
Michael van Gerwen 3-1 Jelle Klaasen
Van Gerwen faced fellow countryman Klaasen in his opener, after the former BDO world champion fought back from a set down to defeat Kevin Burness 3-1 in the tournament’s curtain-raiser, averaging 96.02, producing two ton-plus checkouts and boasting an impressive 52% doubling success.
Klaasen threatened a potential shock after securing the opening set against ‘The Green Machine’, but defending champion Van Gerwen delivered the goods when it mattered to progress with a 96 average and a 44% checkout success rate.
The world No 1 led 2-0 in the first set despite Klaasen missing darts at double in both, although ‘The Cobra’ rattled off three consecutive legs in 14, 12 and 15 darts to draw first blood – taking out a clutch 116 combination to wrap it up with Van Gerwen averaging a miserly 86.
Klaasen claimed a break of throw to move to the cusp of a two-set advantage, but MvG awoke from his slumber to level up proceedings. The top seed broke Klaasen with a 13-darter to force a decider, where he then conjured up a majestic 170 finish to send the Ally Pally crowd into a frenzy.
Another spectacular bullseye finish from Van Gerwen proved decisive in the third; an effortless 130 checkout was followed by a commanding 13-dart hold and any lingering threat of an opening night shock had seemingly evaporated.
Klaasen continued to battle in the fourth, missing double 19 for an eye-catching 96 combination to break throw. However, these fine margins were critical and fittingly Van Gerwen’s hat-trick of bull finishes saw him complete his victory – an 88 kill for a 12-darter kicking off his title defence.
“I think I played a poor game from the beginning. My game wasn’t there yet. Everyone knows Jelle and me have a past, we don’t like each other and that made it harder. It’s even more important I won this game,” said the world No 1.
Kim Huybrechts 3-2 Geert Nentjes
Former Premier League star Huybrechts battled back from 2-1 down to defeat Dutch youngster Nentjes and set up a second round showdown against 2018 champion Rob Cross tomorrow night.
Nentjes secured the early initiative with 64 and 109 checkouts, but Huybrechts produced a stunning 153 set-saver and wrapped up the set via double 16, having fired in his first maximum earlier in the leg.
The second set almost followed an identical pattern. Nentjes posted two maximums in as many legs and took out 111 to establish control, only for Huybrechts to reel off back-to-back legs and force a decider. However, the 21-year-old eventually sealed the deal with his seventh set dart at tops.
The topsy-turvy nature of proceedings continued with three consecutive breaks in the third – the highlight being a sumptuous 12-darter from the Dutchman. Huybrechts rallied but missed darts in the decider for the second straight set and Nentjes sank double 12 to threaten a minor shock.
Nevertheless, a 164 checkout from nowhere inspired Huybrechts to clinch the fourth and send the contest all the way, where experience paid dividends. ‘The Hurricane’ converted 112 and 62 checkouts before exploiting four more misses from Nentjes to triumph via double two.
“I think 100% experience was important,” the Belgian told Josh’s Dartistry. “Geert is a very good young player, one of the very best young players in darts. I produced good darts when I needed it – I did the job and I think that’s the main thing.
“It’s going to have to be a lot better than today but I’ve got an A-game and if that A-game comes through then every player that I play is going to be in trouble.”
Luke Humphries 3-1 Devon Petersen
World Youth champion Humphries continued his love affair with the Aleandra Palace to defeat South African star Petersen and set up a showdown with 18th seed Jermaine Wattimena on Saturday afternoon.
‘The African Warrior’ appeared in total control of the opener before squandering three set darts in leg four and he was suitably punished. Humphries – who took out a 112 outshot in leg two, sank a nerveless 84 checkout in the decider to steal the set.
The second set was dominated by missed doubles but Petersen levelled; converting a classy 94 combination in another set that went the distance. The World Cup star then kicked off the third with six perfect darts but proceeded to lose the leg, with his fragility on the outer ring resurfacing.
‘Cool Hand’ bagged a 106 outshot to extend his lead in the third and although Petersen responded to force a third successive deciding-leg in a set, he was cruelly denied. ‘Dancing Devon’ left himself on tops after 12 darts but didn’t get a shot, as Humphries produced a classy 105 kill.
Last year’s quarter-finalist was growing in confidence and that was evidenced in an accomplished fourth set display. Petersen drew first blood, but Humphries rattled off finishes of 80, a dazzling 160 and 72 in consecutive legs to seal his progression in style.
“I know I was the favourite in that game. Lots of people can fail with being favourite but I feel good being the favourite. I want to be the favourite, I want to prove that last year wasn’t a one-off. I know I can perform on the big stage, I’ve done it plenty of times before.
“I didn’t realise I had four ton-plus checkouts. That’s fantastic darts. Personally I think the best checkout was the 72 to win. Devon hit a fantastic shot to leave a double, if I miss that 72 and he takes it out, it’s a different game,” Humphries told Josh’s Dartistry.
Photo Credit: Lawrence Lustig/PDC