Wednesday 13 December 2023

Gilding, Kist, Littler

What a great year it's been for Andrew Gilding. After a few years off the tour, there were some signs of a return to form late in 2022, but 2023 saw a literal major breakthrough, winning his first PDC title and progressing back up into the top 32. Obviously the highlight by a country mile was the UK Open win - he's had a deep run there before, but actually binking the title was still hugely unexpected, coming through Ricky Evans and Luke Woodhouse comfortably, being run fairly close by Brendan Dolan, crushing Martin Schindler and Adam Gawlas before nicking a last leg decider against Michael van Gerwen to claim a first major title, and first PDC title of any sort. What else has Gilding done though? The Pro Tour was relatively decent, with one semi final, four quarter finals and a further five board wins, only coming up completely dry half a dozen times, this would see steady accumulation of prize money throughout the season without any real big highlights. Having this money, along with a Euro Tour final from the back end of last season, would see Andrew start to creep into the seedings for the European Tour on occasions, which would help him make a run of ten successive events, but much like in the Pro Tour, there wouldn't be any enormous runs - he did get to a couple of quarter finals, but generally speaking it was either an exit at the first hurdle, or an exit as soon as he ran into another seed - either at the last sixteen stage when only just seeded and running into a huge name, or where he's come through a qualifier and just got the opening day win. Other TV events were for the most part not great, losing heavily to Peter Wright at Blackpool after a bad second session took the game away, although that would be followed with a bit of a run in Leicester to the quarter final of the Grand Prix, edging out Rob Cross and Gary Anderson in deciding sets (the Cross game was actually a deciding leg) before being swept by Michael Smith. Dortmund saw a 6-0 defeat to an inspired Danny Noppert, before a bit of a recovery at the Grand Slam, coming through not the worst group in the world before a surprising knockout loss to Stowe Buntz, again one bad session taking things out of control, and the Players Championship Finals would see another mediocre performance, losing 6-3 to Steve Lennon despite having a top 20 seed. Obviously I was delighted to see Goldfinger pick up a major title, but it has had the effect of pushing his ranking a bit ahead of where his level of play actually is, which I feel is open to a potential early exit here given the calibre of opponent he is going to face straight out of the gate.

Christian Kist is a former Lakeside champion, who had a very nice spell in the PDC in the mid to late 10's where he made four straight world championships and hit all the big majors in 2017, but has been off the tour since 2019. 2023 saw Kist return to near his best form, with a sixth place finish on the Challenge Tour including an early win, which saw him get into a lot of Players Championship events and make a big impression. Unfortunately for Christian, we've seen the same thing that has plagued his career, with a late season injury putting into serious question how much of a challenge he will be able to put up at this event. Let's go through the season - starting off, Kist was unable to make much of a challenge at Q-School, not reaching it past the last 32 on any of the four days, leaving him an associate and looking at the Challenge Tour. However, he would be excellent on that circuit - winning the second event of the season, beating fellow Lakeside winners Jelle Klaasen along the way and Scott Mitchell in the final. This would be enough to put him very much in the equation for Pro Tour call ups, a position he improved on the second Challenge Tour weekend with another final run, beating the likes of Danny Lauby and David Evans before losing to Dragutin Horvat in the final. Kist would add another final later in the season and end up in the top ten of the Challenge Tour averages, but by that stage performances on the Pro Tour had taken over. Kist started getting attention in April after getting a board win and then in June where he got to a semi final, but it would not be until September where things really exploded, with a three day run where he got to a Pro Tour final and was one leg away from winning in the final against Danny Noppert, and then followed it up with a semi final the day after and board win after that. Along the way Christian had also come through the associate qualifier for the European Tour twice, but would lose out to Pascal Rupprecht and Gian van Veen in the first round, however after locking up a spot at the worlds and the Players Championship Finals, Christian suffered some sort of injury which I believe is with his throwing hand. How long it's been an issue for is unclear, but he only got one win in the last six Players Championship events (albeit the averages weren't bad), and would crash out of Minehead to Ricardo Pietreczko, winning just the solitary leg and averaging under seventy in the match. Peak Kist is an extremely strong player - what version of Kist we get here is questionable.

There's nobody from the pool of qualifiers who's reached quite the level of hype as Luke Littler has - from being too young to attempt Q-School in January, to being a tour card holder in 2024, Luke's debut here is highly anticipated, and he's booked it through finishing a narrow second behind Gian van Veen in the Development Tour. On this tour, Littler has the second highest average, and has accumulated five titles and a further two titles, only losing in those two in deciding legs to tour card holders. We knew he had potential, but to do that much damage at that level so quickly is probably a bit more than what many thought he would be able to do. Luke likely came to the knowledge of the casual fan at the UK Open - winning one of the Riley's qualifiers, Littler would whitewash veteran Nick Fullwell in round one, drop just two legs against Rusty Jake Rodriguez, then edge out Ritchie Edhouse in a decider to reach the last 64. There, Luke averaged over 100 over an 18 leg spell, but would narrowly miss out to Adam Gawlas who was having the tournament of his life. Luke would also appear on TV from Minehead again this past month, having earlier reached the PDC World Youth Championship final, having beaten players including Keane Barry and Sebastian Bialecki to get a big stage game against Gian van Veen, where Luke would average 102 and defeat van Veen 6-4 to claim a significant victory and lock up a 2024 Grand Slam position, assuming the qualifying criteria don't change. Elsewhere, Littler was maintaining a top 5 position in the senior WDF rankings, having won the Isle of Man Classic, the double at the British Open and Classic as well as the Gibraltar Open, and would have been an automatic player at Lakeside from his 2022 Welsh Open win. Luke's also accumulated serious money by winning two series of the Modus events, highlighting just how much of a threat he is. Luke's not just a player with potential, he is arguably a top 32 level player right now, and I don't see any player in his eighth of the draw as having a significant advantage in level of play already. A best of nine match in a quarter final against someone like Gerwyn Price or Gary Anderson? Yes please - and it's a believable outcome.

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