The biggest compliment that could possibly be paid to an annual event is that it comes to own its place on the calendar. And as the Mosconi Cup comes to an end and Christmas veers ever closer, Alexandra Palace will make final preparations for the PDC World Darts Championship.
There are few sporting fortnights that have formed marriages so synonymous between itself, its date and its arena. Yet, with synonymity comes monotony, a resting on laurels, an ignorance to the threat of complacency. It’s why the next month is the biggest in darts’ history.
It is why, that in the first World Championship in the governing body’s history not to feature Phil Taylor, the sport’s long-term flagbearer, the tournament is expanding like never before. Ninety-two players from 28 nations and seven nationalities among the top 10 seeds, which is a far cry from the 2008 edition, when 21 of the top 25 were English. Of those 25, only four have qualified for this year’s extravaganza. Of the top 10 a decade ago, only James Wade remains in among those ranked highest.
Of the competition’s class of 92, there are standout names wherever one chooses to look – 11 world champions across the PDC and BDO. Of those, two are most striking.
If not so much a misconception as a failure of research, there’s long existed a common view that darts is a game for men, played by men. Quite simply, however, the structure of the sport places it among the most unique. The game has no men’s tour, nor does it possess a women’s tour. Darts is darts. The PDC is an open shop and it always has been. What will begin on 13 December is not the pinnacle of the men’s game, but the zenith of a mixed sport’s calendar.
It is why the presence of both Lisa Ashton and Anastasia Dobromyslova is so significant, not just for darts, but for both the wider spectrum of sport and for a mainstream audience unlikely to have witnessed men taking on women in individual sporting contests.
While they are the first female players to win their World Championship places via the women’s qualifying events, they are by no means the inaugural trailblazers. Deta Hedman, who lost in her qualifying semi-final, became the first female to beat a male player in a televised major when she beat Aaron Turner at the 2005 UK Open. Indeed, Canada’s Gayl King and Dobromyslova have both previously competed at the World Championship.
However, this year’s competition represents something far more than what has come before. The guarantee of female representation is yet another sign that those in charge understand darts’ motion of travel as its popularity continues to rise.
At a time when the visibility of female sporting role models have never been so important, introducing well over one million UK viewers to both Ashton and Dobromyslova is a masterstroke.
When Ashton steps on stage on the competition’s first night on Thursday, she will be playing her part in the sport’s most significant fortnight of the past 25 years.