Saturday 12 December 2020

Section 14 - de Sousa, Smith, Evans, King, Hopp, Mathers

Meet your newest major winner. Jose de Sousa has gone from a dangerous opponent, who got kind of done over by the draw last season, to the latest Grand Slam champion who's playing at a level where he's a threat to win any tournament he enters. With some of the best outshots and counting in the game, de Sousa claimed his first major title by getting through an awkward group involving both Michael Smith and Krzysztof Ratajski, then eliminated Dave Chisnall, avenged a group defeat to Smith, before getting back to back 16-12 wins over Whitlock and Wade to claim the title. That's quite a long way from losing to Michael Barnard two years ago, and while he's still looking for his first win here after last season's defeat to Damon Heta (and a prelim loss some years ago to Devon Petersen), it's surely just a matter of time now. de Sousa made the Slam by winning Euro Tour 3, where he beat all the top three seeds (van Gerwen, Price, White) as well as Labanauskas and a domestic qualifier. Great performances, and more will surely be added.

Outside of his big wins, he made three tour finals, finishing with the highest average outside the big three on the Pro Tour, only being stopped in those by van Gerwen, Wright and Smith, which gave him a high seed for the PC Finals - there he lost out to Michael Smith in the last sixteen. In the European Championship he was logically seeded even higher, hit a nine in beating de Zwaan but would suffer a slightly surprising reverse to Jonny Clayton. de Sousa drew Wright in the first round of the Matchplay and Petersen at the same stage of the Grand Prix, tough draws (would have got van Gerwen if he beat Petersen as well), while perhaps the most surprising loss was at the UK Open, going out at the first hurdle to qualifier Lewy Williams. That's a long time ago now, and Price should be rightly concerned about a possible last sixteen match up - if they both get that far.

One possible last sixteen opponent is Ross Smith, who's had a pretty decent year in terms of results without ever really threatening to claim a first title, you don't finish fourth on the list of Pro Tour qualifiers by accident. The big result was clearly the last Euro Tour of the season - not qualifying for any of the previous events, Ross was able to go through Mario Vandenbogaerde with a remarkable 110+ average, win a decider against Gerwyn Price, then get past Max Hopp (who had oddly beaten de Sousa in the previous round for those who like that sort of thing) to reach the quarters, giving Joe Cullen a good game. That run got him to Oberhausen, where he got to a decider against Michael Smith, but just couldn't score in the last leg and went out in the first round. That was Ross's only major appearance outside of the easy two - suffering an odd loss to Jamie Lewis at the UK Open, but he got a major win over Nathan Aspinall at the Players Championship Finals, that being in the second round after routing Kim Huybrechts, he couldn't get past Damon Heta in round three but most people can't these days.

Elsewhere on the floor, Ross has been consistent - he had a bad run just prior to shutdown, but otherwise was very good at getting past the first opponent and further. Three quarter finals, a further three board wins and a further three board finals is all steady accumulation of ranking money. He has floor wins this season over Petersen, Hughes, Ratajski, de Sousa, Cullen, Cross, Price, Chisnall, Michael Smith - some of these more than once. We've seen that on his day he can beat anyone, he does have a TV victory over van Gerwen after all. Just a case of doing it here and not having the same sort of incredibly disappointing first round result like we saw this time last year.

Smith's opponent will be David Evans, who will make his PDC worlds debut after reaching the quarter final of the BDO event last year, and showing some form in the PDC beforehand with Challenge Tour results and getting into the later Pro Tour events, where he did grab the scalp of Gary Anderson. This year, after a surprisingly disappointing Q-School where he only really got going on day one, and nowhere near enough to get a card, just reaching the last 32, he is into the PDC worlds after winning the Challenge Tour. This will give David a tour card for the next two years, and it'll be interesting to see where he ends up on the Rob Cross to Michael Barnard scale of what he'll do with it. Evans won the tour primarily with two wins on the six event second group of events - getting wins in the finals over Chas Barstow and Richie Burnett, and had enough in the bank that he could afford to lose in the first round in the last two events and still make the worlds.

This gave David a ticket into the Winter Series - he didn't do a massive amount, but it's all experience and he was able to turn over Jonny Clayton in his best run to a board final, sticking around the low 90's level for all of the last three events, indeed, if Chisnall didn't average 121 against him, maybe he could have gone further than the last 32. Evans also got into the third Euro Tour event, by winning through the always tough associate members' qualifier, there he would get a win over the improving Kai Gotthardt, before running into Suljovic averaging a casual 105. This'll certainly be a tough game for both players.

Up and down year for Mervyn. Almost the year where he finally got a major title, by going on an amazing run in the Players Championship Finals. King went within one leg of the title having gone through an absurdly tough run of Dave Chisnall, Danny Noppert, Karel Sedlacek, Damon Heta and then Peter Wright, before coming up just short against Michael van Gerwen. It's maybe the best chance he'll have, and now just a few months away from 55, you wonder if it'll be his last chance. Regardless, outside of that he's had a few high spots - doing well in the first two European Tour events, going through Pipe, Durrant and Kleermaker in Belgium before the break, and Siepmann, Wattimena, van Gerwen and Wade afterwards, Wade additionally being the player he beat in the Grand Prix before coming up just short against Simon Whitlock.

Outside of that it's been somewhat slim pickings - only the two board wins on the Pro Tour saw him enter that final weekend with a seeding down in the 40's. While King didn't lose in the first round too often, there were just too many one and done or two and done events, and even in those two last sixteen runs, he didn't face the toughest opposition. King missed out on the Matchplay, was pretty poor in the UK Open against Joe Cullen, and averaged similarly poorly in the European Championship against Ian White as he had another exit at the first hurdle. The fifty grand he picked up most recently will keep his ranking going nicely for a while, but King will need to improve his floor efforts if he wants to stay seeded on the Pro Tour, otherwise it'll only get tougher and tougher.

Max has become somewhat of a forgotten man, it seems quite a while ago that he was winning on the Euro Tour, and it's only really that he's been able to get a free pass onto the Euro Tour (at least in Germany) that he's actually here, as without that eight grand he would have ended up well short in a year where he only reached the board final on the Pro Tour twice, not winning either of them. Let's talk about the good first - after being the beneficiary of a free pass to the Euro Tour while in Germany (along with Gabriel Clemens), he did make good use of it, first up beating Reece Robinson and Ian White before losing to Noppert, beating Pero Ljubic then losing to van der Voort, then arguably his best event was last when he beat Klaasen and de Sousa before falling to Ross Smith. This was more than enough money to get him into the European Championship - but he lost a decider against Jonny Clayton, going 5-3 up with a 170 out, he missed a dart at bull and a dart at tops to claim victory. That'd be the only time he's been in a major - he was in the last 64 of the UK Open by right, but withdrew.

It's the Pro Tour that's been the issue, and that's always been the issue. He only played 20 events, but went out in the first round eleven times, and only reached round three twice. That's an overall losing record, and some of his opponents weren't the greatest. He's had first round losses to Reece Robinson, Peter Jacques, Adam Hunt, Harald Leitinger, Robert Thornton - that's not the strongest list. Hopp ranks outside the top 64 on Pro Tour averages, and an overall points per turn in everything below 89 just isn't going to cut it. It's back to seeing flashes and just not seeing Max grind it out where it matters, he's simply not going to get into majors if he doesn't knuckle down and start producing.

Max has got a potential banana skin in the opening round in Gordon Mathers - the Australian returns for a second attempt, three years after falling to Seigo Asada in a deciding set in a preliminary round. The first international qualifier to make it after the DPA called off their season, Gordon was top of their rankings at the time and claims his spot as a result. In the events that have been held this year, Mathers was able to win one over Kyle Anderson, and reach the final of another, and is in a group of players just below the top two or three with a similar level of average. The Australian qualifiers have generally been solid, but if it's not someone like an Anderson or a Heta who we know is going to go on to try the Pro Tour and make it, then they've generally lacked the real power game to be able to keep the opponent under real pressure.

Mathers, however, did show intent by giving Q-School a go. He showed a good standard, generally in the mid-80's with a handful of games dropping a little bit lower and occasionally ending up a bit higher, managing to top 100 in his first game of the final day where he was able to push through to the last 64. He did end up quite high up in the averages of both Q-Schools combined, and stuck around for the first weekend of the Challenge Tour. Averaging just shy of 87 for those four events, he had a good run to the last sixteen in the first event, and an even better run to the semi finals of the third event, beating amongst others Robert Collins and James Richardson before falling to Matthew Dennant. This'd have been able to get him into a couple of the Pro Tours before the lockdown, and maybe the Summer Series as well - just a shame that Milton Keynes isn't right round the corner from Brisbane really. Should be a good game.

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