the-next-gen-making-their-mark-at-the-grand-slam

The next gen making their mark at the Grand Slam

Nathan Rafferty has been one of the breakthrough stars at this year's Grand Slam of Darts

Nathan Rafferty has been one of the breakthrough stars at this year’s Grand Slam of Darts

Michael van Gerwen’s record-breaking display, Fallon Sherrock creating history, and Raymond van Barneveld’s return. There have been several major stories at this year’s Grand Slam of Darts, but the performances of the game’s most promising youngsters have not gone unnoticed.

In the past, the Grand Slam provided players from the British Darts Organisation with the opportunity to pit their wits against their PDC counterparts, and the rivalry between the respective codes added a unique element to the event.

Nevertheless, following the demise of the BDO, a change in qualification criteria has given the stars of the PDC Challenge and Development Tours the chance to showcase their skills against the sport’s biggest hitters, and they are revelling in the spotlight.

World Youth champion Bradley Brooks is featuring in front of a crowd on the big stage for the first time in his career, and has acclimatised magnificently, following up a 5-1 drubbing of Mervyn King with a superb display against Jonny Clayton.

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Clayton is eyeing a fifth televised title of 2021 and coming up against ‘The Ferret’ on current form is a formidable prospect, but Brooks was completely unfazed, and it took a wonderful performance from the Welshman to deny ‘Bam Bam’.

Nathan Rafferty is also in contention to advance through to the knockout phases on his Grand Slam debut, having missed a match dart to defeat world No 1 Gerwyn Price in his opener.

The 21-year-old Northern Irishman was the epitome of composure in a hostile atmosphere against ‘The Iceman’, and he was equally impressive in easing past Martin Schindler in his second group game on Sunday.

Rusty-Jake Rodriguez is another prodigious talent, and the 20-year-old has shown glimpses of his potential in narrow defeats to Clayton and Mervyn King, while his older brother Rowby-John has come of age since leading Austria to a first World Cup of Darts final in September.

Rowby-John Rodriguez led Austria to their maiden World Cup of Darts final in September

Rowby-John Rodriguez led Austria to their maiden World Cup of Darts final in September

“It really does seem that they’ve had enough experience, wherever they’ve got it, their belief has grown and with that, their game has grown. They have all proven that they are good enough to mix it with anyone,” reflected Sky Sports’ Wayne Mardle.

“I was sceptical of these tours that were happening for the youngsters, and I think it’s taken time. There’s been a lull. Now all of a sudden, it seems like overnight, there’s name after name, there is talent after talent.

“There are some away from these big events. There is Connor Scutt. Leighton Bennett has put in a few great performances. Luke Littler as well – 14 years of age and is going to be in the [WDF] World Championships. There is Fabian Schmutzler, who is 16.

“Obviously now we have got the Rowby-Johns and Rusty-Jakes, and of course Brooks and Rafferty. It is really exciting.

“I have to give Joe Davis a mention as well. It hasn’t worked out for him at all with his tennis elbow. What horrible timing for him. The biggest moments of his career – all three of them are going to come when he’s injured.”

EXCITING TIMES! For the first time in a long time, there’s a definite glut of brilliant youngsters who I believe will have prosperous darting careers. With a sprinkle of big stage matches and opportunities this batch will be the future of the sport.

— Wayne Mardle (@Wayne501Mardle) November 14, 2021

The Grand Slam provides the perfect platform for the next generation. The ruthless nature of knockout darts ensures there is little room for error, but the round-robin format guarantees players at least three matches on the big stage.

However, the likes of Rafferty, Brooks and Rodriguez could be about to extend their stay in Wolverhampton, as Groups A to D draw to a close on Monday evening.

“Mark Webster made a great point on the opening night – this is a great event for the youngsters, because you get three cracks at playing on a massive stage in front of the cameras and it is so important, it is a massive event,” added Mardle.

“These players are under pressure anyway because that performance pressure that you put on yourself – you can get performance anxiety, but they are all playing with freedom, so they’re not feeling that.

World Youth champion Bradley Brooks has produced two impressive displays in Wolverhampton

World Youth champion Bradley Brooks has produced two impressive displays in Wolverhampton

“I don’t mean this in a negative way; I’d like to see them under the cosh, just to see how they really do react. You do see a reaction, a bit of their personality when someone is under pressure.

“Some come out screaming and fighting like a [Gerwyn] Price, others go into their shell, so it will be really interesting to see.”

Winning breeds winning, and the remarkable resurgence enjoyed by a certain Van Gerwen from 2012 onwards illustrates the impact that the Development Tours can have.

Having burst onto the scene as a 15-year-old in the BDO, the Dutchman struggled to make the transition upon his switch to the PDC, but continued success on the Development Tour ignited ‘Mighty Mike’.

“They look just so at home on the stage because they have that belief. I don’t remember ever feeling that way, being that young.”

Mardle hails the sport’s next gen…

Rafferty, who defeated Peter Wright as an 18-year-old at the UK Open three years ago, was the winner of this year’s UK Development Tour, and Mardle reserved special praise for the man nicknamed ‘The Natural’.

“Bradley Brooks has looked great and acquitted himself superbly, but for me, the star of the youngsters has been Nathan Rafferty. He has just looked a million dollars,” Mardle continued.

“He has looked like he belongs up there. He disposed of Schindler after playing so well in his first game. Schindler is not a world beater, but he’s a world-class player.

“He is so equipped Nathan Rafferty. If that was me, I would be doing cartwheels! You could see by his reaction: ‘Let’s not get carried away now, there’s more to come here.’

Rafferty was edged out by top seed Gerwyn Price in a nine-leg thriller on Saturday afternoon

Rafferty was edged out by top seed Gerwyn Price in a nine-leg thriller on Saturday afternoon

“This is a massive learning curve; their biggest learning curve, and they will learn from game to game.

“What I have seen from every single one of them, they have the composure of men that have been doing this for years, not just a couple of months.

“They look just so at home on the stage because they have that belief. I don’t remember ever feeling that way, being that young.”

Rafferty takes on World Matchplay semi-finalist Krzysztof Ratajski in a straight shootout for qualification in Group A, while Rowby-John Rodriguez plays Stephen Bunting in a winner-takes-all clash in Group D.

Rusty-Jake Rodriguez has produced a series of sublime displays to dominate the European Development Tour in 2021

Rusty-Jake Rodriguez has produced a series of sublime displays to dominate the European Development Tour in 2021

Elsewhere, Brooks and Rusty-Jake Rodriguez collide in Group B, with both players still in contention heading into Monday’s action.

Irrespective of the outcome, the experience gained by the next generation over the last three days will have been invaluable, and that is testament to the success of the Grand Slam format.

The strength in depth within world darts has never been greater, and with the conveyor belt of talent emerging through the ranks, the future has never been brighter.

Don’t miss a dart from the Grand Slam of Darts which continues all week from Wolverhampton’s Aldersley Leisure Village – join us from 7pm on Sky Sports Arena on Monday night.