2021 World Matchplay final preview: Dimitri van den Bergh vs Peter Wright
At the start of 2020, with the young Belgian stuck between chasing his darting dreams and going home as the realities of lockdown hit, newly-minted world champion Wright invited him to stay. Van Den Bergh made his base at Wright's Suffolk farm, collected eggs, and had the world's most in-form player as a practice partner. He could have found some other lodging, but the experience at Chez Snakebite helped him on the path to becoming World Matchplay champion.
Now, only Wright stands between Van Den Bergh and a second successive title, this time in front of fans at the Winter Gardens. It really is a storybook ending to one of the biggest events in the 2021 darting calendar.
At the end of the first session of the first World Matchplay semi-final, Krzysztof Ratajski practically bounced off the Winter Gardens stage. By contrast, Dimitri van den Bergh slunk away, looking sweaty and rattled. He was 4-1 down and averaging around 10 points fewer than the pumped-up Pole.
Many a player will fall apart in situations like that. Even players with endless talent like Michael Smith often find that bad starts are incredibly hard to make up for. But Van Den Bergh has learned a lot in the past couple of years, including the combination of winning in style and winning ugly. His first win, over Devon Petersen, was the latter. There was a lot more of the special stuff in successes over Dave Chisnall and Gerwyn Price.
It all came together against Ratajski. At 6-2 down - which very almost became 7-2 - Van Den Bergh saw his chance and grasped it, turning that deficit into a 9-6 advantage. From there, he didn't look back. Granted, if Ratajski had kept up his first session form and not missed a shedload of darts at the double, the Dream Maker would've been in big trouble. But name a champion who hasn't had at least a slight stroke of fortune. In the end, it was Van Den Bergh who earned this chance at a second World Matchplay win, and if he wins here then he shakes off the 'hot prospect' tag forever, and becomes a bona fide serial winner.
They said that Peter Wright wasn't of major-winning quality. Then, when he took the UK Open, they said it was because Michael van Gerwen was absent. Some high-profile losses, many in finals and most agonising, raised those dissenting voices. Then Wright crushed Mighty Mike to win the World Championship. And now another triumph over the Dutchman has him close to a fourth ranking TV title. All of a sudden, those previously saying that Wright can't ever go down as one of the greats are silent.
His purple visage wasn't the only similarity with the 2020 World Championship final win. Formerly, Wright has been a visibly emotional player, seen throwing his hands up in anguish, talking to himself and - infamously - grabbing for the nearest set of darts he hasn't used for the past 30 minutes. In that famous Ally Pally win, he was inscrutable. It was much the same again on Saturday night, with emotion spared for the end of legs, and - to a much greater extent - the end of the match.
To outshoot someone like Van Gerwen to make the final is great in and of itself. Achieving that target with an average north of 110 - the best average of any World Matchplay semi-final, outstripping Phil Taylor and Van Gerwen himself - is extra special. And it's not hugely surprising, either. Wright looks confident, comfortable and happy with his setup. A ludicrous run of three legs completed in 32 darts would've been a thing to gawk over in the first round of a Pro Tour match, let alone one of the biggest games that any player will appear in.
When these two meet, it tends to be Peter Wright who comes out on top. Van Den Bergh suggested that it was even the case when they practiced together and their then shared home. Wright is in better form overall, and has the extra pedigree and experience. Those factors do count for something, but they are far from a guarantee.
You get the feeling that each will throw a sustained spell of pressure that the other will have to withstand. At the end of a long, scorching week in Blackpool, it's now a case of seeing who can handle the heat best. Their mutual respect will endure long past this, but the Phil Taylor Trophy is big enough for just one man to hold. We're going to have a lot of fun finding out who that man is.
Sunday July 25 (20:30 GMT)
Dimitri van den Bergh v Peter Wright