Tuesday 5 December 2023

Smith, Zonneveld, Webster

Ross Smith finished 2022 on a mix of highs and lows - claiming a first major title, but then coming out just on the wrong end of a swingy thriller of a match against Dirk van Duijvenbode at the last 32 stage of the worlds which went all the way. Has 2023 been better? In terms of his career trajectory I want to say yes, in terms of results I want to say no, but for Ross I'm thankfully not results oriented. Let's see what he did. On the Pro Tour, Smith was good. Very good. Finishing sixth in the averages only behind Clayton, Price, Humphries, Anderson and, er, Matt Dennant (off one game lol), Smudger has been able to show a level of consistent elite play which I wasn't sure was in him prior to this year. Ross claimed two titles, first early in the season over Gary Anderson, with notable wins over Nathan Aspinall and Luke Humphries on the way, the second was right towards the end of the season, which seemed to be more of an example of that football cliche where a keeper has nothing to do for 80 minutes but is called into action frequently late in the game, not needing more than 8 legs in anything before the semis prior to having to come from 5-2 behind against Dom Taylor and then defeat Damon Heta in a good final where Ross averaged over 100 for the fifth time in the tournament. The European Tour was a bit more hit and miss, with mostly misses - getting into the majority of events, but only actually getting onto the Sunday three times out of eleven events he played - beating Pascal Rupprecht and Joe Cullen as an unseeded player in Leverkusen but losing a decider to van Duijvenbode, a peak run in Sindelfingen to the semis where he defeated Beaton, Gurney and Aspinall before falling to eventual champion Rob Cross, then in Hildesheim it was a case of beating Gurney, but then losing to Clemens who had knocked out the number one seed to open the draw. On to TV - here Ross disappointed in terms of results, but was it due to draws? You can argue a 10-9 loss to Jonny Clayton in the UK Open in the first game is fine. A 10-8 loss in the first game of the Matchplay to Dimitri might have been avoidable. He would get one back on Clayton in the Grand Prix, then lose two deciding legs for sets 3 and 4 against Cullen to lose 3-1 in the second round. Smith was seeded in the middle of the field for the Euros, and ran into Ricardo Pietreczko averaging 104, sometimes you just run into someone who's unplayable. He missed match darts against Nathan Rafferty to make the Slam, then in the Players Championship Finals, he suffered the unfortunate case of running into someone mailing in the season, beating Scott Williams as the number 8 seed, but then finding himself against number 40 seed Michael van Gerwen in round two, who decided to average 118 as he can do. Maybe he could have done more on the Euro Tour, but other than that I think it's generally been a case of bad fortune, and I'm leaning towards numbers don't lie - Ross is playing extremely well, and is absolutely a threat to get through not only his immediate seeding opponent (Dobey, which is a harsh ask for a #17 seed), but then the next opponent in the last sixteen.

Niels Zonneveld has been one of those players who seem to slot into the category of "too good to not have a tour card, but not good enough to retain it" - at the age of 25, that can easily change into a solid top 64 player in the future, but for now that is where I see his game being at right now, winning his card in 2019 on day one, losing it two years later, winning it back on points at the top of the leaderboard in 2021, losing it two years later, then this January ending up just behind Kuivenhoven and Veenstra on points but solidly getting back on tour. This'll be his third attempts at the worlds, losing three years ago to Willie O'Connor in straight sets, and also losing in straight sets to Lewy Williams last year. He is back though, getting in just about through the Pro Tour rankings, which I think is just about deserved with where he is in the averages. He did leave it late though - with four events to go he was very much in the shit, but had a run to the quarter finals of event 27, notably beating Danny Noppert, and then backing it up with a board win the day after, clearing out Rob Cross on the way, meaning that despite losses in the last two events, he was still able to fall over the line and qualify. Earlier in the season, Niels had a few good runs, with a best of a semi final in May, which in fairness seemed to be mostly a case of having the draw open up and then not having enough to beat Mike de Decker, but he still needed to beat whoever was in front of him, he would also have a nice cameo in June with back to back board wins on the same weekend. Niels absolutely needed to do this, as the European Tour was more or less a total loss -  not qualifying for anything after the opening event in Kiel, where he would average more than Mario Vandenbogaerde but lose a deciding leg, the result of which put Niels in the position where he'd only make the two Minehead majors. Coming off a tour card reset he was in the first round of the UK Open - he'd get through world youth finalist Nathan Girvan and then Keegan Brown, but lose out to Darius Labanauskas in round three, but promisingly a couple of weeks ago he would make good progress in the Players Championship Finals, taking out a tricky pair in Daryl Gurney and Jonny Clayton to go deeper in a major than he has done before, only to be annihilated 10-1 by Gabriel Clemens in the last 16. Niels' level of game seems clear - competent, but hanging with someone like Smith over an extended period seems like a fair bit of a reach.

Darren Webster is at this stage a well respected veteran of the circuit, good enough over a long enough period to reach a worlds quarter final twice eleven years apart, but is now very much in the twilight of his career at the age of 55 and this does have somewhat of the feeling of a swansong, with Webster needing a semi final run to retain his card and with tempting opportunities on the seniors tour and things like the Super Series likely calling in 2024. We'll see what he decides to do in the future, but what about what he's done this year? Darren originally lost his card at the end of 2021, but won it straight back outright on day 2 of Q-School, however since then I don't think it's unfair to say he's more or less been making up the numbers, sitting at just fifteen grand of winnings over the last two years. This season on the Pro Tour, Webster finished outside of even the top 128 in averages, and ended up with twenty-one first round defeats, hitting just the two board finals all season, one in June where he beat non-card holder Peter Jacques then Martin Schindler, then achieving his best run all season with three events to go, playing through to the last sixteen with wins over Dave Chisnall (both averaging 83), Martijn Kleermaker and Jurjen van der Velde before Dom Taylor was too strong. Taylor was oddly Webster's first opponent at the UK Open, who Darren beat and then followed up with a tight victory over Tony Martinez, but Andrew Gilding was naturally too strong in the third round. There is no European Tour record to speak of - he played every qualifier, but lost his opening game on ten out of thirteen occasions, losing out to Graham Usher, Madars Razma and Brendan Dolan in the only spots where he was able to get one game away from qualifying - those games went all the way twice and then 6-4 against Dolan, but that'll be no consolation. Harsh to say, but Webster seems a long, long way off the player he used to be, and I don't think Niels will have a great deal of trouble in advancing out of the opening game, and it's likely just a case of saying thanks to the Demolition Man for giving us some good entertainment as his career at the top level comes to a conclusion.

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