We were spoiled for sporting excellence in 2012. However, the first day of 2013 witnessed an achievement to rival all the glories of the previous twelve months. In winning the PDC World Darts Championship, Phil Taylor took his tally of world titles to 16 (14 PDC and two BDO). After a two year hiatus The Power returned to his natural condition: winning.
The most astonishing thing about Taylor is a will to win, not just once but time after time, that is unprecedented in sport. Only Sir Steven Redgrave and Sir Ben Ainslie, both returning to their respective boats in successive Olympics with only gold in mind, come close in my eyes.
The time to talk about Phil Taylor as a great sporting champion glibly is now well over. Barry Hearn’s divisive brand of professionalism has moved top-flight darts from the pub to the packed arena; the injection of cold-hard-cash if nothing else means it is to be taken seriously. However, strip away the razmatazz, the walk-on birds and the pissed-up punters and you have a pure sporting contest: a board, three darts in your hand and nowhere to hide. A deceptively simple sport, surely a matter of practice and composure you might think, but if it is so simple, how has one man managed to dominate darts for the best part of two decades?
A fearsome cocktail of natural aptitude, commitment and an obsession with winning.
If Taylor is hard to like it is because he has refused to mellow into mediocrity. At 52 he remains dogged, irascible and brilliant. Whilst the vanquished foes of a previous generation have retired to the comfort of commentary box caricatures, Taylor returns to the oche, his hair a little greyer, his paunch a little paunchier, ready to mix it with players 30 years his junior.
This year’s triumph at the PDC Championships was all the more remarkable considering many pundits had suggested The Power might be on the wane. Defeats on the circuit meant that Taylor’s number one weapon, his aura of invincibility, was significantly blunted. Before the semi-finals you could get 2/1 on Taylor for the title; he used to go off odds-on before a dart was thrown in the whole tournament.
In the final itself he was 2-0 and then 4-2 down in sets to Dutch wonderkid Michael van Gerwen. Just as the match appeared to be slipping away, following a trademark worried chew of a flight, Taylor returned to the oche, like a boxer climbing from the canvas after a knockdown, a man desperate to regain the title that had eluded him for the previous two years – a barren 24 months in which one imagines every day of being unable to call himself the world champion hurt The Power.
This was a different Taylor on show: this was not The Power who mercilessly humiliated Peter Manley in a 7-0 whitewash at the Circus Tavern in 2002; this was not even The Power that snatched a final set decider to rob Kevin Painter in 2004 – then The Artist was in thrall to Taylor – it was just part of the natural order of things to lose to Phil.
This time out van Gerwen had little reason to fear Taylor (saving the weight of history) – the Dutchman, having beaten Taylor in their previous two meetings, was the power scorer and if the bookies made the match a coin-flip, MvG was nailed on to hit the most 180s. In the past it was Taylor who had ground opponents down with a combination of incessant scoring pressure and finishing prowess, forcing his competitors to take out two or three dart checkouts just to keep pace. Now it was Taylor who was feeding off scraps, Taylor who was forced to watch his opponent checkout 3 figure finishes when sitting on 40, Taylor whose first dart was failing to land flush in the treble.
Yet Taylor kept pace with the Dutch upstart as set after set went to a final leg decider. Fed on scraps he might have been, but, like the hound before the hunt, scant fare made Taylor all the more hungry and when he sniffed blood he pursued it with the ruthlessness that has made him a multi-champion.
Some might question the value in winning something for the thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth time – it is the fact that Taylor has both the desire and ability to do so that makes him a sporting one-off.