I have a few favourite games, probably about 20. Most are memorable for reasons of drama or partisan delight, but there are a couple that provided a different kind of euphoria: watching sheer mind‑blowing greatness. In that particular category, Michael van Gerwen’s 6-2 win over Raymond van Barneveld in the 2017 PDC World Championship semi-final falls slap bang in the middle of the bullseye.
Plenty of you will sneer, this being darts, and I hope you’ll accept my sincere pity for your unfortunate ignorance. To those who get darts, it is the most psychologically fascinating sport of all. None of the others require such surgical precision under constant, extreme pressure. It’s like a never-ending penalty shootout, only the drama is authentic rather than contrived. Oh, and the same two people are taking all the penalties.
That pressure is what makes great darts matches so memorable. I could have picked Van Barneveld’s 4-3 win over Van Gerwen when the two Dutchmen met in the worlds a year earlier. That was probably an even better game, a perfect dramatic spectacle, but you’d need a whole book to do it justice. The rematch is an equally cherished memory, primarily because of the unprecedented standard.
There have been bigger averages in a darts match, but never over such a long format: 32 legs, a staggering 15 of which were won in 12 darts or fewer. MvG’s average of 114.05 is the highest in world championship history; Van Barneveld produced the fourth-highest average in the history of the tournament, 109.34, and took out 68% of his doubles. He played the finest darts of his career, and he was battered.
It was 2-2 at one stage, with Van Gerwen averaging 115 and Van Barneveld 114. Then Barney’s performance level dropped from astonishing to merely magnificent and Van Gerwen ran away from him. The level of brilliance was laughable. And both men had immaculate comic timing, regularly replying to a 180 with a maximum of their own, or banging in another straight after a break.
Since his breakthrough in 2012, watching Van Gerwen has verged on the psychedelic. His dizzying speed adds to the trippy experience and the Van Gerwen surge, when he responds to adversity by going berserk, is one of the greatest sights in sport.
Van Gerwen loves kicking a man when he’s up. When Van Barneveld, already 1-0 ahead, serenely took out 160 to break and lead 2-1 in the second set, Van Gerwen was in trouble. So he went into overdrive: from that moment until he took a decisive 5-2 lead, Van Gerwen averaged 117.58. That’s over five and a half sets and 22 legs. Apart from missing double 12 for a nine-darter, his performance didn’t really have high points. It was one long orgy of genius.
Crucially, it was genius under the highest pressure – not just against Barney, but throughout the tournament. MvG was inconsolable after his defeat to Van Barneveld the previous year. Over the next 12 months he won a record 25 titles, yet everyone knew they would mean nothing if he didn’t win the worlds. The reason they knew is because Van Gerwen kept saying as much. A lot of the pressure, and potential humiliation if he failed, was self-imposed.
The rest came from his opponents. Three of the five highest losing averages in the history of the worlds came against Van Gerwen in the 2017 tournament. He was pushed every time, and every time he knew defeat was unthinkable. Such pressure would asphyxiate 99% of us, but I suspect it helped Van Gerwen. With the possible exception of Diego Maradona at the 1986 World Cup, I have never seen somebody play with the same purpose, brilliance and especially focus that Van Gerwen showed in that tournament.
Although Van Gerwen is still the best in the world, he hasn’t been quite as awesome since he won the world title in 2017. That only enhances the memory of a night when he was near as dammit to perfection.
Many thanks to Chris Kempf, the PDC’s statistical analyst