Dubai: With his bald head, chunky frame and oversized, lime-green shirt, 24-year-old darts prodigy Michael Van Gerwen is a most unlikely sports star.
Non-aficionados of darts might even, if they saw the Dutchman from a distance, wonder to themselves “what on earth is Matt Lucas doing?”, given his uncanny resemblance to the British comedian.
But this striking figure is perhaps the perfect figurehead for the surprising success story of the supposed non-sport of darts, which was brought to a Dubai audience on Thursday and Friday for the first time in a professional event.
World number two Van Gerwen won the inaugural Dubai Duty Free Darts Masters 11-7 in the final with a quite devastating performance against fellow Dutchman, the five-time world champion, Raymond van Barneveld, on Friday night at the Dubai Tennis Stadium.
And his scintillating scoring and displays of raw emotion when celebrating winning a leg – he performs a curious double fist-pump and a pout of which Mick Jagger would be proud – were one of many highlights of a two-day spectacular which thrilled and amazed in equal measure.
His choice of walk-on music (all the darts players making boxer-style marches to the stage accompanied by their favourite music anthem) – Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes – isn’t bad either, its thudding rhythms mirroring the fury and passion of his pinpoint-accurate throwing.
Before last week, many sports traditionalists in the emirate had questioned the wisdom of adding a game with pub origins to a sporting top table in Dubai featuring ball-game behemoths such as cricket, rugby and golf.
But Van Gerwen and his seven other rivals, the top-eight darts players in the world, gatecrashed this party with a quite fabulous show, a heady cocktail of sporting brilliance and frenzied crowd support.
Darts will continue to divide opinion as to whether it can be considered a sport, but what is unquestionable is Van Gerwen is at the top of his game and is a serious contender for 16-time world champion Phil Taylor’s global crown.
The confident Dutchman, whose Dubai success completed a hat-trick of titles in a week, having beaten Taylor in the final of the British Premier League and emerged victorious in the European Darts Open, said: “I want to win the worlds, the biggest tournament of the year [in January], and I am going to work very hard to win them. I know I am playing very well and I am very confident at the moment. I am not afraid of anyone and I know I can win every game.”
Van Gerwen’s victory was made all the more special by the fact that he became the first winner of a professional darts tournament outdoors – and he mastered the heat, humidity and occasional breezes with cool aplomb.
“It was an amazing win for me and I didn’t know what to expect beforehand,” Van Gerwen, who earlier in the evening beat world No.1 Taylor’s quarter-final conqueror Andy Hamilton 11-0 in the semi-finals, added.
“The crowd was amazing, everything was amazing and thanks to the sponsors [Dubai Duty Free] for a great event. I knew I was going to win and I hope I can defend this title next year.”
And the prospect of Van Gerwen returning to the emirate next year looks a very real one following Professional Darts Corporation chairman Barry Hearn’s comments after the final.
Hearn said: “I’m delighted with the success of this tournament and we’d be crazy not to come back. We’re looking forward to building on this because the crowd have created a fantastic atmosphere.
“We’ve had over 5,000 fans visit the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Stadium for the tournament and millions watching around the world, and I’m sure we can sell out next year’s event.”
One man who might be wishing Van Gerwen injures his wrist before next year’s mooted extravaganza is Raymond van Barneveld, the beaten finalist, who admitted he was powerless to stop his fellow countryman’s inexorable title charge.
“Wow, he’s just amazing,” he enthused, insisting his three-dart average of 98.7 for the match (Van Gerwen’s was 103.1) when faced with a barrage of ton-plus scores from his irresistible rival. “It’s hard to keep up with him, what can you do?”
Indeed, what could anyone have done given that Van Gerwen’s stunning performance mirrored the pugnacity and indomitability of his favourite tune?
“I’m gonna fight ‘em off. A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.”