And so, with 94 out of 95 matches played, we find ourselves pretty much where we started: Michael van Gerwen against the field. As the world No1 and heavy favourite has carved a regal swath through the world championship draw, beating Nathan Aspinall 6-3 in Monday’s semi-final, one by one his closest rivals have fallen away: Rob Cross, Michael Smith, Gary Anderson, Gerwyn Price. Only Peter Wright, the man they call Snakebite, now separates him from a fourth world title.
On pedigree alone, it should be no contest. Van Gerwen is the indisputable master of modern darts, a silverware machine who treats all his opponents as impostors. Though he has looked several notches below his best over the last fortnight – and even his moment of victory here was greeted with a rueful shake of the head – his B-game has been more than good enough so far. Whether it will be good enough for Wright, however – a man who delights in upending the conventional maxims of the sport – is a matter of some interest.
After all few expected Wright to beat Price here. Yet after an ill-tempered semi-final under the Palace lights, it was Wright raising both arms to the crowd in triumph, his opponent beating a hasty retreat from the stage: his pride stung, his dream over for another year, his arrows unable to cash the cheques that his mouth had so gleefully written for him.
“He’ll be lucky to win a set,” the third seed, Price, had quipped in advance of this match. It was a comment delivered with a knowing winkbut one that Wright was nonetheless happy to accept at face value. “I like Gezzy but I didn’t appreciate what he done,” Wright said after his 6-3 victory. “You want me to concentrate? All right, I’ll concentrate. You lost.”
There is little doubt that Price’s antics over the last year or two – needling opponents, celebrating in their faces, loudly proclaiming his own genius to any microphone within earshot – have riled many of his fellow professionals. As long as Price was backing up his words with irresistible darts, of course, it was all part of the game. Here, though, his wagon ground to a juddering halt, his darts scattering all over the board, his reliable double-top consistently failing him. An average of just 89.9 was evidence of an arm gone astray.
Meanwhile Wright, in his 50th year and playing in his third world semi-final, played the occasion to perfection. These long-format games are as much about staying power as skill, a test of consistency and evenness in the harshest glare. Blown gently towards the winning line by a partisan crowd, he offered almost nothing in terms of outward expression, regarding his missed doubles with a wry, almost gnomic air, as one might a dead seagull on the front lawn.
It is a repeat of the 2014 final, a gap of six years that in darting terms may as well be a lifetime. Then Van Gerwen was just a kid on the cusp of greatness, his nervy 6-3 victory finally earning him the world title his talent had long portended. Now the entire sport marches to his tune, to the point where an average of only 96.3 – as he recorded against Aspinall – feels like a glaring missed opportunity.
Wright, meanwhile, was virtually unknown in 2014, his shock run to the world final saving a career that he was on the verge of giving up. Ever since, he has established a reputation for reliable excellence: this will be his 12th major final in those six years. Mention the fact that he has won only one of those, however – the 2017 UK Open – and he is apt to bristle slightly. “I’m not going to throw it away again,” he promised.
He may not have to. Van Gerwen may have looked refreshingly human at times during this tournament but his ability to switch into god mode at a moment’s notice is matched only by his capacity to hang in when the going is tough. Finals are rarely classics: Wright could play his best and still lose; Van Gerwen could play his worst and still win. It is this quality, above all, that makes him such a hard man to bet against.