ichael van Gerwen doesn’t know what climate change is. I mean, he’s aware of the concept. But the phrase is new to him. “I’m not even interested in that,” he says over video link from his home in the south of the Netherlands. “I ain’t got any power over it. People all have opinions about the news, about Boris Johnson or Mark Rutte over here. But you can’t do anything. It’s above your power.”
The reason we got onto this in the first place is that I’m trying to work out how Van Gerwen stays so relentlessly positive, even after a year as bleak as this. Does he not watch the news? Has he not been keeping tabs on the gradual disintegration of human civilisation? Does he worry about anything at all?
“Only my family,” he says cheerfully. “I don’t even worry about getting Covid. Only for the people around me. But if you go to the supermarket and you get corona, what can you do about it? Nothing. I always say a glass is half-full. It’s not half-empty.”
Control what you can; leave everything else to one side. It is the maxim that Van Gerwen lives by, one that over the last decade has turned him into one of the most successful champions in the history of sport. As he rattled around the world hoovering up silverware, introspection was anathema: a green-shirted machine whose greatness was built not on self-analysis but on blithe, unshakeable self-belief.
But what happens when that belief gets shaken? What happens when the machine grinds to a halt? These are some of the questions Van Gerwen has been pondering during 2020, and it’s fair to say he’s had more time to ponder them than he was expecting. Now, with the world championship starting on Tuesday, the three-time champion can reflect on this strangest and most turbulent of years: a year that has tested him, as it has all of us, in new and surprising ways.
In early April, just as the world was shutting down, Van Gerwen became a father for the second time when his wife Daphne gave birth to Michael junior. “The only positive thing about it ,” he says. “I’ve been able to see the birth of my son, and watch him grow up. The rest is all bad. People suffering, dying.”
On the oche, too, these have been unsettling times. Post-Covid darts presented a bleaker, radically different prospect: a condensed schedule played largely in a sterile room in Milton Keynes. Shorn of the usual trappings, strange things started happening. “People who are always nervous in front of crowds, maybe they think there’s something to grab here,” Van Gerwen observed of a year in which unfancied outsiders like Dimitri van den Bergh and José de Sousa started scooping up major wins.
But few could have foreseen the impact on Van Gerwen’s own game. After some early defeats, in September he failed to qualify for the Premier League play-offs for the first time in his career, crashing out 8-2 to Daryl Gurney in the final group game. “The Premier League was a disaster for me. A nightmare. The mindset wasn’t good. If the Premier League is spread out over five months, no-one’s going to beat me. But a lot of players can play well for a week.
“What changed? There was the corona [shutdown], no fans, the birth of my kid, all that stuff together. Everyone knows I’m a stage player. That gives me a lot of buzz and adrenaline. I always liked to play in front of crowds. I don’t know why, but I’m a bit of a show-off man. So you have to make the right adjustments.”
People are allowed to say whatever they want. But if you never fulfil your words, then you need to be quiet
Van Gerwen’s worst slump in years – even as he continues to top the world rankings and money list – has led many darts observers who should know better to suggest that his era of dominance might even be over. This is a song he has heard many times. “When you win, you’re the hero,” he says with a sigh. “But when you lose, they write you off really quickly. And is it always fair on me? No, probably not. But that’s reality and you have to deal with it. I’ve built a big shield around me.”
The chasing pack feels closer and hungrier than ever. “But they say it every year,” Van Gerwen interjects. “For instance, every year after the world championship, Peter Wright says he’s going to be No 1 in the world. He’s been saying it for five years. Gerwyn Price says: ‘If I play like this, I can’t lose’. It doesn’t really bother me. People are allowed to say whatever they want. But if you always talk rubbish, and never fulfil your words, then you need to be quiet.”
There’s a wry smile as he says this, a showman’s flourish. “You need to have a little bit of banter,” he says with a smirks. But equally, he knows that if he brings his A-game to Alexandra Palace there are few players on the planet who can live with him for long. A couple of weeks ago at the Players Championship finals, he won his first major crown since the restart, offering glimpses of the form that will be required if he is to claim a fourth world crown on 3 January.
“I feel good. And I think I can do some really good damage in this world championship. Winning tournaments: that’s the only thing that counts to me. But also, it’s about your way to a tournament. How’s your focus? How’s your sleep been? What’s the combination between your private life and work life? It’s not complicated, but it’s very difficult. There are loads of different parts. Everything has to be good to create something phenomenal at a dartboard.”
This is the alchemy that has fuelled Van Gerwen’s greatest triumphs. His occasional glibness in front of a microphone belies the extent to which he thinks about his game, invests himself in it, strives for its marginal edges. He practises largely at night to replicate tournament play. He focuses his practice on finishing and combinations rather than blunt scoring. He tracks his averages meticulously. “If I play my own game, it has to be a minimum of 98. Minimum.”
And so, for a game played largely in the mind, mindset is crucial. “Maybe it’s not the best thing to say, but I use Raymond [van Barneveld] as an example,” says Van Gerwen. “Raymond was the most negative. And that didn’t work for him in the last few years. So I’ve always been a positive person.” How much does he suffer after a defeat? “Of course it upsets me, but not for a few days. It affects me for a few hours, and after that I will be fine again.”
Even for the surest bet in the game, there are plenty of unknowns ahead. There always are at the Palace, and doubly so this year, even with crowds tentatively being allowed back. Van Gerwen, who lost the 2019-20 final to Wright, begins his campaign on Saturday night against a qualifier, by which time London could be back in Tier 3 and crowds could be banned again. Either way, van Gerwen will be ready, primed, optimistic.
“Of course I had a lot of downs this year. But also a few ups. You need to hold on to those ups and keep believing in yourself. We’re back on track. And from here I see the light at the end of the tunnel.”