The Winter Gardens – the theatre of darting dreams. The World Championship may be the pinnacle for any professional dart player, but the prestige and history attached to the Empress Ballroom makes for a unique summer spectacle.
The World Matchplay is the highlight of the calendar for many of the sport’s elite, and as the event returns to its spiritual seaside home in 2021, the anticipation is tangible, particularly among this year’s debutants.
There are seven players set to make their Blackpool bows at this year’s showpiece, one of whom is emerging star Callan Rydz, who claimed his first senior PDC title in February.
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“I am very excited,” the 23-year-old told Sky Sports.
“It is an iconic place for the darts and my Grandad has always said ever since I started playing that he would love to see me up there and now he can, so it is two dreams come true really.”
Rydz bidding to run riot
Rydz is part of a thriving North-East contingent within the PDC and he will take on Teesside’s finest Glen Durrant in an intriguing opening-round clash.
‘The Riot’ first locked horns with the three-time BDO world champion in a local competition as a 14-year-old, which he claims was instrumental in his darting journey.
“The first time I ever met Glen was the Northumberland Open about nine years ago. That was my first ever competition and Glen beat us that day in the last eight,” Rydz added.
“I didn’t really watch darts that much back then. I knew of him but I didn’t know much. I went into some research and saw he was an England player at the time, he was a very solid BDO professional and I was like, ‘Wow’.
“I did push him that day as well and I was only 14. I think from there, that competition has just spurred me on.”
Durrant’s current woes have been well-documented. Since lifting the Premier League title last October, he has suffered an alarming slump and has registered just nine victories on the PDC circuit in 2021.
‘Everybody knows how good Glen is’
However, Rydz is still in the fledgling stages of his career, particularly on the TV stage, and he insists complacency will not be a factor as he bids to match his best performance on the big stage, having reached the last 16 in November’s Players Championship Finals.
“Everybody knows how good Glen is, and it is only a matter of time before he starts hitting those 105 averages constantly again,” he continued.
“It’s one of them where Glen is struggling, but you cannot think he is struggling. You have got to go out there and try and do a job on him early doors.
“I didn’t pick up my darts from the Worlds to that Super Series. I had two months off and I didn’t play at all, and it was probably the best two months that I’ve actually had.”
Rydz reflects on his flying start to 2021…
“I would definitely say I am still learning the ropes. I am not used to the big TV cameras just yet, but it comes with experience and the more experience you get, it becomes an easier environment to come out and play in front of crowds.”
Another debutant set to fulfil a darting dream in Blackpool this weekend is Ross Smith, who takes on 2019 champion Rob Cross in his opener, with the winner set to take on Rydz or Durrant for a place in the quarter-finals.
Smith – a PDC Tour Card holder since 2012, has made considerable strides over the last 18 months, and although he is relishing his first taste of Matchplay action, it will not be his first pilgrimage to the Winter Gardens.
Smudger set to fulfil Blackpool dream
“This has been something I’ve been wanting to do since I was a kid watching it, so to make my debut – it has taken a while, but I’m just happy to be there,” he told Sky Sports.
“I went once when I was a kid. I was there for a tournament called the Bobby Bourn memorial, and that was the weekend before they started the Matchplay.
“I remember being there with a mate of mine, Kirk Shepherd, up in the balcony. I was about 16 so to be playing there now, it is massive.”
The 32-year-old is no stranger to claiming major scalps on the big stage. He memorably defeated Michael van Gerwen at the 2019 European Championship, having beaten James Wade en route to reaching the UK Open quarter-finals earlier that year.
However, ‘Smudger’ heads to the Matchplay buoyed by his exploits at last week’s PDC Super Series, where he captured the first senior ranking title of his career.
“It means everything to me [winning his first title]. It means absolutely everything. It is something I have worked hard for.
“I probably took my darts for granted a bit as a youngster, but now I’ve grown up, I just wish I had done this a bit sooner.
‘I’m sick of making the numbers up’
“I feel really good, but I want to keep my feet on the ground and concentrate on this tournament. I am sick of turning up at TV events and seem to be making the numbers up.
“Winning that Players Championship has definitely given me the confidence to believe I can push on in this now and do some damage.”
This year’s World Matchplay has been touted as one of the most open in recent memory. World champion and world No 1 Gerwyn Price has a miserable record at the Winter Gardens, while Michael van Gerwen is extraordinarily still without a PDC title in 2021.
“I want to push on in my career. I don’t want to be somebody there to make the numbers up or win something once. I want to really kick on with my career.”
Smith aiming high ahead of Blackpool bow…
Dimitri Van den Bergh triumphed on debut in last year’s event, and Smith insists there is no reason why he cannot replicate the Belgian’s heroics.
“I remember watching Dimitri win it, and the likes of him and Jose De Sousa – seeing how they have come on leaps and bounds over the last few years.
“That is a big motivation for me. When I look at them, I think: ‘Why can’t I do that?’ It is making me practice harder, it is making me want it, and there is no reason why I can’t do it.”
Darts is back on your Sky Sports screens this month, with nine days of coverage from the iconic Winter Gardens and the World Matchplay – the action gets under way on Saturday July 17.
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