Darts expert analyzes tournament: "This World Cup is fascinatingly bizarre"

Monster darts and mega disappointments. Domination and humiliation. Anger and wonder. The 2021 World Darts Championship delivers a sometimes crazy spectacle on the stage of the legendary Alexandra Palace in London. But instead of being carried away by the party mode of what is probably the craziest audience in the world, the games are reduced to the duels of man and arrow against man and arrow. How this will affect the tournament, who has benefited from it and who not, we talked to our ntv darts expert Kevin Schulte about this before the upcoming quarter-finals. Joe Cullen only plays six sets and four legs against Michael van Gerwen, probably the best darts of his life, only to experience a historically bad knockout. Gabriel Clemens suffers a bizarre match darts tragedy after his miracle against world champion Peter Wright and fellow favorite Dimitri Van den Bergh plays furiously, but loses anyway. What kind of a World Cup is it? One to suffer, one to celebrate or just one to marvel?

Kevin Schulte: This World Cup actually has plenty of everything. But what surprised me most of all is how high-quality it is at this tournament. That strikes me especially because no spectators are allowed. This extraordinary atmosphere usually attracts a lot of attention, now sport alone dominates. And that's also because we have so many dramatic games. Like the one mentioned by Cullen against Michael van Gerwen or the defeat of Gabriel Clemens against Krzysztof Ratajski. It's all so incredibly tight. It doesn't really help you any more if you are 20 places ahead of your opponent in the ranking. This World Cup is fascinatingly bizarre, it's a lot of fun.

Does this development come as a surprise to you, or have you already suspected over the year that there could be so many close duels at the World Cup right into the last leg?

This is definitely a development that has already begun over the course of the year, especially after the first lockdown in spring. Then Dimitri Van den Bergh surprisingly wins the World Matchplay and becomes an absolute world-class player. Or Dirk van Duijvenbode, who sensationally played the final at the Grand Prix in October. And then of course there is José de Sousa, who wins the Grand Slam just before the World Cup. Accordingly, it was clear that the world's top darts would be much broader, that many more players could win tournaments. Especially players who are less known to the general public. And so it is not surprising that a Peter Wright is eliminated from Clemens. This is a development that has begun, I would say that.

You mentioned it: It's a development that has been observable since the first lockdown. Since then, spectators have only been admitted very rarely. Do players like those mentioned benefit from the fact that the pressure that passionate fans generate through whispers and shouts is no longer there?

Yes absolutely. Of course, it is something completely different in the crucial moments when you play in front of an audience. When you have already fired four darts past the doubles, then you can feel the restlessness, the expectation behind you. That's huge. Especially at the World Cup, where the audience is even more ecstatic. It is much more difficult for a not yet so established player to deal with it than for an old hand. The fact that there are no fans now helps some players to see their games through to the end and win. You see it more often these days. And the fact that someone literally "throws away" their game in the end, as the English put it, is also less common.

You have just mentioned players who are among the profiteers. Do you also see actors who are missing the audience for their best game?

Gerwyn Price is definitely such a player. Although of course he's currently playing very well and showing great performances even without a spectator. But he's definitely someone who benefits from having fans in the hall. He also needs it to make himself hot. Another player is definitely Michael van Gerwen. He's also playing a very strong World Cup now, but in the period after the lockdown he didn't break anything for a long time for his standards. Van Gerwen is a guy who can push himself really hard over the audience and the reactions. Both are types who repeatedly interact tremendously with the audience.

Germany's top player Gabriel Clemens does not belong in this category now. He looks very introverted. Would the miracle against Wright have been possible in front of spectators in a sold out Ally Pally?

That would definitely have been more difficult. Then you would have had these mentioned moments that are easier to handle for a ripped off player. Especially when you go to the decider and the audience is in ecstasy. So it is probably the case that the current phase also helps a player like Gabriel Clemens in these games. But he also has the athletic quality to decide such a game. He will show that again in the coming year, he will be a strong challenger, even if hopefully we can play with fans again. I tend to see something else that Clemens has to work on. Again and again he fails after victories against the big boys in the next round because of the slightly smaller name.

Was Clemens' win over Wright the biggest surprise of the tournament so far? Or do you see something else? And on the other hand, who surprised you particularly negatively?

A big disappointment for me is ex-world champion Rob Cross. In principle, however, he did not show anything sensible in the whole year. And the fact that he then fails in round two to van Duijvenbode, in the last set, in the last leg, that just fits in with the completely messed up months last. But then you have to say that van Duijvenbode is also writing the history of the World Cup. The guy started at £ 0 in prize money earlier this year, just getting the tour card back. He was a man from the fourth, fifth row. And then suddenly he is in the final of the Grand Prix. This is really amazing. And anything but a one-hit wonder, as we are now seeing. But of course, Clemens' victory against Wright is a milestone, especially for German darts.

More disappointments or surprises?

What applies to Cross also applies in principle to Wright. And then there is the "bully boy" Michael Smith. His World Cup appearance was a total disaster. If he stabilizes himself mentally, then it is a player who rolls through such a tournament who can win everything. But with his negative nature and charisma, he always takes himself out of the games and makes his opponent strong at the same time.

The one who surprised me a lot is Stephen Bunting. It came so completely out of the cold pants because it actually hadn't torn anything in the end. And now he's in the quarter-finals. But that's also a bit typical for a Darts World Cup, because we always have one or two names among the last eight that make you wonder: How do they get there?

Max Hopp failed again early on. What's going on there?

First of all, it has to be said that he was at the World Cup for the eighth time in nine years. That is really extraordinary. He was just 16 when he first participated! It is also clear that the big breakthrough is still missing. He had 2018 this year, where he played the European Championship semi-finals, where he was really pushed up in the world rankings. But he was unable to capitalize on that and clearly fell behind again. Maybe Hopp will always be a player from the second row, but he is still very young, you shouldn't forget that. And that's the way it is: this year, in this game against Mervyn King, almost every player would have been kicked out. King was really, really strong that night.

What distinguishes the careers of Hopp and Clemens?

It's very simple: with Clemens you can easily see a very consistent and steady development. That's why he's now deservedly number one in Germany. Hopp, on the other hand, has too many waves in it. Too often, strong phases are followed by weak phases.

Then the only question that remains is: who will be world champion?

I said Price before the tournament and I'm sticking to it. Price just plays a typical world championship tournament so far. It doesn't go through with confidence, doesn't play absurd 110 averages and kills every opponent to zero. No, he had some really difficult moments against Brandon Dolan or Jamie Lewis. It reminds me of Peter Wright's path to the title last year. Of course there is also van Gerwen. But the rest? I don't see it. "MvG" just has to be afraid of the ever-shouting Price. Dave Chisnall always has mega performances, like now in the round of 16 against Van den Bergh. But this is often followed by a total mush. He just doesn't win big tournaments. And Gary Anderson, he basically only pokes through the tournament. I'm missing the focus.

Well, then one last question: What is the Anderson scratching?

Gary is a darts purist. He just wants to play darts, he doesn't like the development that a few tactical games are now being played. That kind of slowdown by Mensur Suljovic or that aggressive roar by Price. But basically you have to say: every sport changes and develops over time. And if you want to keep up with the top guys at 50, then you have to keep up with the times. Well, I think this grumbling is a bit of compensation, a bit of the style of José Mourinho, who always opens up some other herd of war when things don't go well. But if that leads to him going out combative and announcing in the interview the day before yesterday that he will play another ten years, then that's cool. So that's why you can see it positively.

Tobias Nordmann spoke to Kevin Schulte