PDC World Championship preview - Dave Allen
ADRIAN LEWIS opens the defence of his World Darts Championship title on Thursday night, when he faces Nigel Heydon as the £1 million tournament begins at London's Alexandra Palace.
The 26-year-old from Stoke claimed the first major title of his career back in January, creating history by hitting the first nine-dart finish in a World Championship final during his 7-5 defeat of Gary Anderson.
Lewis returns to Alexandra Palace to open the World Championship amongst five games being played in Thursday's opening session.
The world number two plays Nigel Heydon in his first round game, with the undertaker from Leamington Spa having taken a 6-5 victory in their most recent clash during a Players Championship in Dublin in October.
"It will be very tough and I think I've got one of the hardest first round draws," said Lewis. "He's had a fantastic year and beat Gary Anderson in the Grand Slam recently.
"Nigel's a good player and he had a good result when we last played but it's different up on the World Championship stage. I've been practising really hard and I'm going to be ready to come straight out of the blocks at him.
"I'm excited about getting back to Alexandra Palace and can't wait to get back on stage."
Lewis' nine-darter proved the highlight of a memorable final on January 3 when he claimed the £200,000 title, and he admitted: "It was very special and I think everybody who plays darts wants to win a World Championship title and hit a nine-darter.
"Half-way through the game I forgot about it because I knew I had to go on and get the win and keep going at Gary.
"I was 6-3 up I think and he had a couple of good sets to come back to just one behind, but I had a good final set and won it 3-0. It was a massive step in my life.
"I've been putting the work in and there's no reason why I can't retain it. I'm very confident and I'm going into the tournament with a lot of expectation because I know what I'm capable of."
The 15-day tournament kicks off when Derby's Jamie Caven meets Holland's Roland Scholten, the 2004 UK Open champion who is challenging to return to the world's top 32 after overcoming serious shoulder problems.
Essex's Paul Barham - who finished second in the PDC Unicorn Youth Tour this years to qualify for a televised debut - then takes to the stage in a preliminary round clash with Hong Kong's Scott MacKenzie, with the winner of the best-of-seven-leg contest meeting Wayne Jones in the night's final game.
Mark Webster, a semi-finalist in the last two years at Alexandra Palace and the conqueror of reigning champion Phil Taylor on New Year's Day, then faces Richie Burnett in an all-Welsh battle.
Webster, 28, reached the final of the Cash Converters Players Championship on Sunday - losing to Kevin Painter 13-9 in the final - and has jumped up to sixth in the PDC Order of Merit with his performances in 2011.
"Alexandra Palace has been a great venue for me in the last couple of years and hopefully I can go a step further this year and win the competition," said Webster.
"I want to build on my success this year in the World Championship and if I can become World Champion then the defeat against Kevin on Sunday will be forgotten.
"I rarely dwell on results and I've got to put that behind me now and move on because it's a big game; Richie's a class player and a dangerous opponent."
Phil Taylor, the 15-time World Champion and tournament favourite, enters the fray on Friday night when he meets the winner of the preliminary round clash between Japan's Haruki Muramatsu and Dennis Nilsson, a former winner of Sweden's Strongest Man.
"It's a different challenge not knowing who your first round opponent is but I'll be concentrating on making sure my preparation is right," said Taylor.
"I know Muramatsu qualified a couple of years ago and is a good player, and Dennis might throw me off the stage if I beat him! I've got to make sure I get the job done and then I can go and prepare for the second round after Christmas.
"This year I can go in there aggressive and attack because I want to win and I've got to fight for it. I'm there to win the World Championship, not to worry or feel sorry for anybody else."
Friday's second night also sees June's UK Open finalist Wes Newton playing Belgian debutant Kurt Van De Rijck, Co Stompe meeting St Helens' young prospect Michael Smith and in-form Justin Pipe - a three-time Players Championship winner this autumn - plays Australian Sean Reed.
Saturday sees two sessions take place at Alexandra Palace, with former Lakeside Champions Jelle Klaasen and Steve Beaton kicking off the afternoon and evening's action respectively against Peter Wright and Magnus Caris.
Five-time World Champion Raymond van Barneveld plays Northamptonshire-based newcomer James Richardson on Sunday night, with 2005 runner-up Mark Dudbridge taking on Dave Chisnall, the former Lakeside Championship finalist who has impressed in his debut year on the PDC circuit in 2011.
Last Sunday's Cash Converters Players Championship winner Kevin Painter, the 2004 World Championship runner-up to Taylor, will begin his challenge for a second successive major title when he plays Arron Monk on Monday night, with world number three James Wade, Mervyn King and Andy Hamilton also in action.
Scotland's Gary Anderson, the runner-up to Adrian Lewis 12 months ago, faces Germany's Jyhan Artut amongst four games on Tuesday, with last year's semi-finalist Terry Jenkins playing either Joe Cullen or Serbian debutant Oliver Ferenc.
The first round concludes on Wednesday December 21, with three-time World Champion John Part playing John Henderson and Simon Whitlock making his return from a broken bone in his ankle against Dennis Smith.
The Australian, who reached the final at Alexandra Palace two years ago, was injured at the end of October but is now out of a cast and has been practising for two hours a day in advance of his battle with Swindon's Smith.
The pre-Christmas play in the World Championship concludes with two evenings of second round games on Thursday and Friday, with play resuming on Tuesday December 27.
After the second round concludes and third round is played, the quarter-finals take place on Friday December 30, with the semi-finals on January 1 and final on January 2.
A record number of over 40,000 fans are expected to descend upon Alexandra Palace throughout the course of the 15 days, with tickets still available through www.seetickets.com/darts or by calling 0844 871 8807.
Fans who have been unable to secure a ticket for a sold-out session can still purchase tickets through viagogo, the Official Ticket Exchange Partner of the World Darts Championship at www.viagogo.co.uk.
Hospitality packages are available to watch the World Darts Championship in style, including two-course meal, complimentary drinks and exclusive reserved seating, and can be purchased from the PDC Head Office on 08712 501 180.
A total of 72 players from 24 countries are competing in the World Darts Championship, including Portugal, Serbia and Malaysia for the first time, with the £1 million prize money including £200,000 for the champion.
There is also a £10,000 bonus on offer for a nine-dart finish during the event, with Hills offering odds of 6/4 for a player to repeat the feat, which has achieved for the past three years in the World Championship, with Raymond van Barneveld (2009 and 2010) preceding Adrian Lewis in hitting a perfect leg.