The curtain is raised on the 2019 World Matchplay on Saturday night with the defending champion and a further five major winners starring at the Winter Gardens.
The 26th staging of the sport’s summer show-piece features one of the strongest fields ever assembled in Blackpool as they compete for a record £700,000 prize fund and a place in the history books.
The nine-day major gets off to a pulsating start with four heavyweight contests featuring a host of decorated darters.
All eyes will be on Gary Anderson as he launches the defence of the Phil Taylor trophy with a clash against Dutch debutant Danny Noppert.
Anderson returns to Blackpool bidding to become only the fourth player ever to defend this title, having averaged 100.8 for the tournament and come through epic tie break battles against Joe Cullen and Mensur Suljovic to triumph last summer.
No one could have foreseen the turbulent 12 months that would follow for The Flying Scotsman, with injury ruling him out of the Premier League and plaguing his start to the 2019 season.
The 48-year-old, however, has eased himself back in to competition of late, winning the World Cup alongside Peter Wright for Scotland before suffering early exits in both of this month’s World Series events.
Anderson has not lost in the opening round here since 2012 but faces a tricky opener against the unflappable Dutchman who is one of seven debutants in a star-studded field.
Noppert, a former Lakeside finalist, reached the Semi-Finals of the Players Championship Finals last November but has failed to surpass the Last 32 stage in five of his six televised tournaments as a PDC player.
The world number 38 first met Anderson in the 2016 Grand Slam as BDO player, narrowly losing 10-9 in the Last 16, and will look to pressurize the Scot once again over the same distance.
One of the stand-out ties of the round sees 2018 World Champion Rob Cross take on two-time major quarter-finalist Chris Dobey.
Cross is making only his third appearance at the Matchplay, having suffered back-to-back Second Round exits, and will determined to mount a serious title challenge to finally follow up his famous triumph at Ally Pally almost 18 months ago.
Cross has fared well in TV majors so far this season, finishing runner-up in both the UK Open and Premier League and is out to record a fourth straight win over the Bedlington youngster.
After falling agonisingly short in the past two years, Dobey’s consistent displays on the ProTour have finally been rewarded with a place in the second biggest major on the calendar, and the 29-year-old will be determined to seize the opportunity.
Dobey finished runner-up in last month’s Danish Open and got his first taste of the Premier League stage back in February when he held Mensur Suljovic to a 6-6 draw on home soil in Newcastle.
Reigning UK Open champion Nathan Aspinall is thrust straight into the limelight on his Matchplay debut as he takes on veteran Mervyn King in the opening match of the night.
Aspinall’s astonishing rise over the past 12 months is underlined by the fact he is seeded 13th on his Blackpool debut and a firm contender for a third televised title of the season, having also claimed US Masters glory in Vegas a fortnight ago.
His incredible run of form stretches back to his Semi-Final appearance at the World Championship, and the Stockport ace is regularly preserving his ‘A’ game for the sport’s biggest stages.
He starts out at the Winter Gardens against seasoned campaigner King – a player making his 13th consecutive Matchplay appearance – outlining his consistency on the circuit throughout the season.
King, however, has visibly struggled with the heat on stage in recent months and faces a test of endurance over the long format on darts’ most notorious pressure cooker of a stage.
Reigning Grand Slam champion Gerwyn Price aims to hit the ground running when he starts out against 2014 Lakeside Champion Stephen Bunting in another eye-catching encounter.
Price reached the Quarter-Finals on his Matchplay debut in 2015 and has not looked back since, going on to establish himself as one of the sport’s biggest box office attractions.
The passionate Welshman reached the Semi-Finals of the UK Open in March and finished fifth in the Premier League, having also claimed back-to-back ProTour titles back in February.
That said, he has suffered successive First Round exits in Blackpool and has been handed a tough opener against a player enjoying a long-awaited resurgence following a spell in the darting doldrums.
Bunting, the world number 18, is embarking on his sixth straight Matchplay campaign since joining the PDC but has fallen at the first hurdle in his last four attempts.
Runner-up in last month’s Czech Open, ‘The Bullet’ is back firing on all cylinders after admitting he came close to quitting the sport a year ago and will be keen to reach the heights of his debut since in 2014 in which he took the circuit by storm.
The action gets underway from 7pm BST, with all matches to be contested over the best of 19 legs.
Matches will proceed for a maximum of five additional legs before a tie-break leg is required. For example, in a best of 19 First Round match, if the score reaches 12-12 then the 25th leg will be the decider.
Betfred World Matchplay 2019 Match Schedule
Saturday July 20
7.15pm Nathan Aspinall v Mervyn King
8.15pm Gerwyn Price v Stephen Bunting
9.15pm Gary Anderson v Danny Noppert
10.15pm Rob Cross v Chris Dobey