Having suffered elimination in his previous Premier League appearance back in 2014, Simon Whitlock was the bookmaker’s pre-tournament favourite to be relegated on his return to the competition, but ‘The Wizard’ has conjured up some early magic to silence his critics, writes Josh Gorton.
Whitlock received a wildcard invitation for this year’s Premier League, which sees him return to the fold after a four-year hiatus. The Australian is determined to make amends after departing the competition on ‘bad terms’, where he registered just four points from nine games.
That disappointment sparked an alarming decline for Whitlock, as he plummeted outside the world’s top 16. However, he has enjoyed an impressive revival; winning five Pro Tour titles inside 18 months and also reaching the World Grand Prix final last October, which saw him reclaim his place in the world’s top eight.
Some still questioned Whitlock’s inclusion after he was condemned to early exits at the Grand Slam of Darts, the Players Championship Finals and the World Championship, but after the opening two weeks of action, he has already matched his points tally from the 2014 campaign.
The 2012 Premier League finalist kicked off this year’s tournament with a stunning comeback win over Mensur Suljovic, recovering from 3-1 behind to prevail 7-5 with a 106.49 average. He then produced a clinical display to dismantle beleaguered world champion Rob Cross 7-1 in Cardiff last week.
“I’ve really enjoyed it so far, I’m really excited to be back in it. I went out on bad terms. The season I had, the last one  I was sick for the first six weeks. I had an ear infection so my balance was off a bit and it really did affect me, but it’s been a good fightback to get back in it,” Whitlock told Sky Sports.
As well as reaching the World Grand Prix final last year, the 48-year-old also reached the quarter-finals of the UK Open and European Championship, but he was still odds-on favourite to be eliminated after nine weeks.
Nevertheless, Whitlock insists he is unperturbed by those who questioned his credentials. He added: “That’s their opinion. I think I’ve proven myself. I’m number eight in the world rankings now and I think I thoroughly deserve to be in there.”
This year’s Premier League features four debutants in the tournament’s biggest ever shake-up, yet the four new faces are the only players yet to register victories. Whitlock believes experience is proving to be a vital factor: “I think it’s very important the experience. It is a completely different thing to anything else I’ve ever played in, so the experience is really working for me.”
The Aussie will aim to continue his 100 per cent start to the competition when he takes on five-time world champion Raymond van Barneveld in Newcastle on Thursday night. Van Barneveld has also made a strong start to his 13th consecutive Premier League campaign, as he remains unbeaten after the opening two weeks. However, Whitlock is full of belief.
“I’m going into that match pretty confident. I’m not going to think about it too much because you just worry, so you can’t really stress about who you’re playing, it’s just another big game. They’re all big games every week and as long as I prepare well I should play well.
“On paper it should be a close match but anything can happen on a Thursday night at the Premier League. I really enjoy playing Barney, we do a lot of exhibitions together so we do actually play each other a lot,” Whitlock added.
However, while Whitlock is relishing his return to the Premier League, he admits that he is already feeling exhausted due to the hectic demands of the darting schedule.
“It is very draining,” he admitted. “The last two weeks have been really hard. Backing up doing three days in a row doing the Pro Tours is really stressful and draining. I’ve been exhausted when I’ve got home and I only get home for two days a week at the moment and then I’m off again.
“It could [destroy you]. If you start playing badly and thinking about it too much, it can definitely destroy you. But it can also work the other way, if you start winning and have good results your confidence levels can go sky-high.”
The Premier League heads to German soil for the first time in the competition’s history next week, and although Whitlock is excited by the prospect of performing in front of the Berlin crowd, he has his sights firmly set on pushing for a play-off place.
“I’m looking forward to every week. It would be great having some support if the Germans do get behind me, that would be awesome I think. The first aim was to avoid relegation and once I get through that bit, I’ll be looking to the top four, for sure.”
The 2018 Premier League heads to the Metro Radio Arena in Newcastle this Thursday with coverage underway from 7pm on Sky Sports Action. Thirteen weeks of tungsten action will continue through to the season’s conclusion with the Play-Offs on May 17 at The O2 in London.
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