Saturday 7 December 2019

Worlds 6/16 - Aspinall, Boulton, Baggish, Ratajski, Hughes, Lerchbacher

The questions of whether Nathan Aspinall's semi final run was a fluke were answered very quickly, when the Stockport native was able to clinch a first major title by taking the UK Open and put himself very much into the conversation for a Premier League spot in 2020. The UK Open win came with a close semi final win over Gerwyn Price before defeating Rob Cross in the final, having taken out Alcinas, Kist, Razma, Lennon and Ross Smith in previous rounds. Aspinall would add a second TV title later in the year, while the US Darts Masters isn't a ranking event or anywhere near as prestigious, it's still a win, Aspinall having beaten Cross, right and Michael Smith to get the victory. Elsewhere, Aspinall's been impressive - coming close to picking up another Pro Tour win on three occasions, being only stopped by O'Connor, Ratajski and Gurney, and making the final session on the European Tour four times, peaking with a semi final in Gibraltar where he eliminated Michael van Gerwen and Peter Wright, prior to losing a decider against Dave Chisnall. In the other majors, he'd suffer a surprise defeat to Mervyn King in Blackpool, get to the quarter finals in Dublin with wins over van der Voort and Noppert prior to losing to Dave Chisnall again, run into Gerwyn Price in the second round at Göttingen, end up in the group of death in the Grand Slam against Michael Smith and Glen Durrant, before most recently getting Raymond van Barneveld in the opening round at Minehead, losing to the veteran Dutchman. Can he repeat what he did twelve months ago? It's a tough draw, but who knows?

Andy Boulton makes a return to Ally Pally after a four year absence - on that occasion he won a preliminary game against Per Laursen before going out to Gary Anderson, this time he's got a first round tie before possibly facing another major winner. Boulton won his tour card back in January on the Q-School order of merit, and qualifies for here after a solid floor season, winning his board six times and reaching three quarter finals. In those quarter final runs, Boulton was able to get notable victories over Gerwyn Price, Mervyn King and Joe Cullen, and was consistent enough to get through his opening game 70% of the time. This was a good enough level of performance to see Boulton make a second visit to Minehead - the first time he was just able to mincash the UK Open, taking out a qualifier before losing to Christian Kist, while in the Players Championship Finals, Boulton would be defeated by Keegan Brown in the opening round. In terms of stage form, Andy was able to reach three European Tour events - the first time, he got a win against Josh Payne before going out to Daryl Gurney, but in the next two he'd lose to Vincent van der Voort, understandable given Vincent's form, but in the final event he'd lose to qualifier Steffen Siepmann, which is one you'd think he could have avoided. Can he put together enough of an improved performance to get past someone of Aspinall's quality?

Boulton's opponent will be the first player to have qualified for the worlds in Danny Baggish, who won the North American Championship by defeating Elliott Milk, Leonard Gates and then former Lakeside finalist Jeff Smith to qualify. A consistent average in the mid to high 80's would see him take the final two matches in deciding legs, and he'd score a bit higher in the following US Darts Masters, albeit his 92 average was no doubt helped by Daryl Gurney limiting him to just the one leg in the match. It was a bit of a surprise performance, Baggish previously only being a competitor in minor regional events, although looking at one of those he's played this year afterwards, the Witch City Open, he was able to put up ton-plus averages in the quarters and semi final, and similarly in the CDC event he won - averaging 95 over the course of the event with consistency in the later rounds. A regional event got him into the World Masters, where he was able to take down European Tour competitor Wesley Plaisier and push through to the last 64, where he was taken out by veteran Gary Stone in a deciding set. Maybe Baggish is the great hope that'll start off an upturn in North American darts? He certainly appears to have the game to at least have a chance of getting through the opening round.

2019 was another year of improvement for the Polish number one, with Krzysztof reaching a new high by becoming the most recent player to become a winner on the European Tour when he claimed the title in Gibraltar - losing no more than three legs in any game as he went through Steve Beaton, Joe Cullen, Ian White, Daryl Gurney and Dave Chisnall. The £25k prize really helped to establish Ratajski in the top 32 and push him towards the higher ends of the Pro Tour order of merit, a ranking that his top ten level scoring indicates is no fluke whatsoever. His floor form wasn't limited to that one European Tour performance - four Pro Tour finals, two of them ending in victory over Dimitri van den Bergh and Nathan Aspinall. Ratajski's floor form, which has been known about for some time, is slowly being turned into TV results - the UK Open saw a good run that was only stopped by Gerwyn Price, he got a win over Darren Webster at Blackpool before running into eventual winner Rob Cross, he'd get a tough draw in Dublin and lose in the opening round to Glen Durrant, while maybe he could have done better in the last couple when he lost to Chris Dobey and Willie O'Connor. It's now a question of whether Ratajski can make a deep run in the biggest one of all, and will certainly want to improve from last year where he lost in the opening game to Seigo Asada.

One of Ratajski's potential opponents is also a European Tour winner in Jamie Hughes. After Hughes was a surprise failure to win a tour card in 2018, he demolished the field in 2019 to claim his card on day one with huge averages, but what could he do after that? He started off well enough, getting through to several European Tour events, making a decent enough run in the UK Open with wins over Callan Rydz and Ian White, before Gerwyn Price eventually took him out, and would slowly improve in performances - in the German Open Hughes would beat Brendan Dolan and Simon Whitlock before losing to Gerwyn Price, then two events later he reached the semi finals - beating Adrian Lewis, Mark McGeeney and Nathan Aspinall before falling to Peter Wright, then he'd make a first floor quarter final a week before the Czech Open - needing a win and only a win to make the Matchplay, it's exactly what Hughes did, beating Devon Petersen, whitewashing Adrian Lewis, then a run of Sunday wins over Ron Meulenkamp, Ian White, Simon Whitlock and Stephen Bunting saw him secure enough to finish as the highest Pro Tour qualifier for Ally Pally. Hughes hasn't quite been able to make any TV progress since then - Michael Smith and Michael van Gerwen were tough draws, Jermaine Wattimena was maybe a winnable game, after qualifying for the Grand Slam he ended in a group with Dave Chisnall and Rob Cross, and it'd be Cross again who'd take out Hughes at Minehead but not until after Hughes had avenged the European Championship defeat to Wattimena. Hughes' form isn't quite as good now as it was six months ago, but if he can rediscover it, a second round match with Ratajski could be one of the matches of the tournament.

Hughes will play a tour card holder (for now, it'll take a miracle run to save it) in Zoran Lerchbacher, the Austrian making a fourth appearance here and a first for a couple of years, in his last appearance he'd stun Mervyn King before pushing Keegan Brown very close. This year, he's here on account of winning his regional qualifier, putting in his best performance of the year when he needed it most, averaging over 90 in the last three rounds with wins over John Michael, Alessio Marconi and finally hot prospect Rusty Jake Rodriguez in a deciding leg, hitting a 107 out with Rodriguez waiting on 50. Lerchbacher's a previous multiple Pro Tour finalist, but has looked nothing like that form in 2019 - Zoran didn't reach a single European Tour event, only getting as far as the final round of qualifiers on one occasion, and on the Pro Tour, Lerchbacher won his board on just the one occasion, made his board final in just three further tournaments, and was knocked out in the first round nearly two thirds of the time. His averages aren't as bad as his results, 88 points per turn isn't too shabby, but should still be outclassed against someone of Hughes' calibre. Needless to say Lerchbacher had no luck in qualifying for majors he wasn't automatically entered in, but did at least get to the World Cup quarters with Suljovic, picking up a win in the last 16 over Darin Young, and showed up in the UK Open, but a draw against Gabriel Clemens would be too much of an ask.

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