Lewis targets perfect ten at Ally Pally darts
Sean Held @seanheld
The increased load and pressure of a virgin world-title defence often proves too much for the returning champion. But while some find the expectation crippling, others crave the spotlight and succeed in securing back-to-back titles.
Adrian Lewis has no doubt which category he will fall into when he begins his Ladbrokes World Darts Championship defence on December 15.
Lewis, bidding to become only the second man in history to retain the PDC championship, after 13-times winner Taylor (who also has two BDO world titles), is already plotting further glory. He wants to exert his own stranglehold on the sport after two decades of darting dominance from Taylor.
The Sport Collective found Lewis in ebullient mood as we sat down to discuss his first year as world champion and his imminent title defence.
“I’ve set my sights on winning between eight and ten world titles. I think that is a realistic number,” he said.
“I don’t think anyone will ever emulate what Phil Taylor’s achieved, but I think I’m good enough to win ten. That is a definite number in my head and, hopefully, No 2 comes at the beginning of January.”
Lewis hopes the hunt for the game’s biggest prize will inspire him to recapture the scorching form of 12 months ago. Scotland’s Gary Anderson was blitzed in the final as Lewis threw the first nine-dart 501 in World Championship final history and went on to establish a new tournament record of 60 180s. These are feats the rest of the field will have tattooed on their subconscious, if not their throwing arms.
The world No 2′s performances have been steady rather than spectacular this season. The plan was always to peak for the Ladbrokes World Darts Championship and Lewis looked back to somewhere close to his best at the Grand Slam of Darts in Wolverhampton last month, until he ran into a possessed Taylor at the semi-final stage.
Long seen as the heir apparent to ‘The Power’, Lewis may have to seek royal counsel from Prince Charles on lengthy coronation waits – as Taylor shows no obvious sign of decline or the inclination to abdicate soon.
The added billing of world champion naturally heightens expectations, but Lewis disputes the notion that he is under more strain than his rivals ahead of the biggest tournament in darts.
“As far as pressure goes, I firmly feel the other players are under just as much pressure as I am,” he said.
“I’m really looking forward to going to the worlds as the champion. Obviously there’s some pressure being the defending champion and I probably have a target on my back, but there’ll be another 71 players there wishing they were me.”
“I’ve been under the spotlight all year and I think I’ve had a half-decent season in the majors overall. I could’ve won the European Championship and I think I’m playing really well. Some of the players I’ve played recently have just played out of their skin against me.”
Lewis expects his main challenge to come from higher echelons of the world rankings and does not envisage too many surprise results from the quarter-final stage onwards.
“I think it will be the usual suspects,” he said. “Obviously Phil Taylor will be up there. Gary Anderson, James Wade and I think Barney (Raymond van Barneveld) will come into some form. But If I bring my ‘A’ game I know I can retain my title. I need to finish better, but other than that I’m playing brilliantly. If the real Adrian turns up I’m convinced I will win it.”
Lewis has always bristled at the suggestion that Taylor acted as a mentor early in his career. Their locality enabled them to practice together regularly, but theirs was no special master-student bond. Lewis thinks too much is made of the Stoke association, even though the Potteries has produced three world champions, two-time BDO world champion Ted Hankey, the game’s pantomime villain, making up the third.
Lewis said: “I’d qualified for a few televised tournaments before I’d even met Phil and honestly, I didn’t really think about the Stoke connection when I won the world title. I try not to think about other players too much. I think about me when I’m on and off the board and what I’m trying to achieve.”
However, if Lewis wanted, or indeed needed, someone to play Mr Miyagi to his Daniel La Russo he appears to have found that individual in new manager Keith Deller. The 1983 Embassy World champion’s arrival has undoubtedly made the Lewis camp more efficient.
A significant change this year has been the toning down of the Lewis walk-on routine. The man nicknamed “Jackpot”, after a $75,000 Las Vegas casino win he was too young to claim, believes his televised pre-match japes had become an unwelcome distraction, so a conscious decision was made to adopt a more low-key approach in recent months.
“I sat down and spoke to Keith and we decided that I’d change the walk-ons,” he admitted. “It was affecting my concentration. If you go up there running and jumping about, your energy and focus can go. When you watch the likes of Simon Whitlock go on stage, he walks on very slowly, he’s calm and collected and from dart one his mind is fully on the game. I looked at that and thought that was the way to go rather than jumping up and down like a prat.”
A significant equipment change is considered a gamble in most sports. In darts it can prove devastating. A professional’s arrows are almost a bodily appendage. The tiniest alteration in feel or weight can throw a player totally off kilter. A lost or damaged dart is a major problem, let alone a complete redesign. Lewis’s mid-season switch of manufacturer raised eyebrows on the circuit and he admits it took time to fully adapt to his new weaponry.
“I have found the change in darts a bit tricky the last few months; I can’t lie about that,” he said. “I wasn’t match-sharp with my new darts. It hasn’t been easy. My last tournament with the old darts was the European Championship in August. I got to the final, hit a nine-darter, so I left the old darts on a high.”
“I wasn’t comfortable at the Grand Prix with the new darts. But I’m used to the new darts now and there is no problem. My form is improving all the time, the only way is up.”
Lewis accepts he may have lost some tournament sharpness this season as a result of playing too many exhibitions, and plans to think through and tighten his schedule next year.
He said: “I think next year I’m going to do a lot more Pro Tour events. I will play more of the Players Championships at the weekend. I think I may have played too many exhibitions. I played a lot in pubs and clubs for the fans and I didn’t always feel match-sharp when the big events came around.”
“It has been a lot more hectic, rushing round here, there and everywhere. I’ve really enjoyed being world champion this year, but will play probably play less exhibitions in the future.”
Lewis, softly spoken away from the oche, comes across as an affable gentle giant; the type you might find in a Brothers Grimm fairytale. This persona is totally at odds with the bold, self-confident showman you see at the board. He keeps concocting new challenges to keep his mind fresh and confirms rumours he nailed six bullseyes in a row at one exhibition this season.
He said: “I wanted 300, so thought I’d try bull, bull, bull, bull, bull, bull and I managed it. You cannot afford to doubt yourself. So much of this sport is played in the mind.”
His head-to-heads with current BDO king Martin Adams captivated darts fans, but in reality were no more than glorified exhibitions. Lewis sounds a little weary when this year’s so-called unification clashes are brought up. In a sport where perceived slights and falling-outs are jumped upon by the game’s broadcasters and fans alike, Lewis is keen to play down any bad blood or rivalry with England captain Adams.
He said: “It was fine playing Martin Adams. I had no problem with it. He’s never said anything negative about me that I know of, so it wasn’t a problem.”
In a sport where millimetres are inevitably the difference between joy and sorrow, certain competitors excel in the dark arts and push the boundaries of fair play to the limit. Lewis is convinced he now has the experience and temperament to avoid the flashpoints that occasionally marred his early years as a professional. A naturally quick player, he at times struggled to cope with the tactics adopted by some of the game’s more deliberate practitioners.
He said: “There is gamesmanship up there with certain players. But it is just part of the game, you have got to get on with it. With certain players, when you’re drawn to play them you know what’s coming. You have to learn to deal with it and that comes with experience. I’ve been in the PDC for nearly seven years now so I try not to let it affect me.”
Lewis begins his Ladbrokes World Darts Championship campaign against rank outsider Nigel Heydon on Friday December 15. While few pundits expect him to replicate the scintillating form of 12 months ago, the man himself has no such doubts. Lewis travels to north London fully expecting to scoop the jackpot.
If you enjoyed this, then read Sean’s in-depth look into the world of darts in “Boardwalk Empire”