Most of us would know of darts as a fun game played over beers at a pub. But it is indeed a sport with a world championship that just concluded. And it is even more famous thanks to its losing finalist – a 16yr old sensation Luke Littler. Littler has set the darts world on fire with his stupendous run at the world championship attracting 4.8m TV viewers for the finals on Sky Sports – a record for a non-footballing event for the channel, more than the Ashes. Even the British PM sent a congratulatory tweet for Littler. Jacob Whitehead covered this fascinating story for The Athletic just ahead of the final.
“The UK is darts’ spiritual home, a game traditionally played in smoky pubs but which is now evolving at a rapid rate under the auspices of the Professional Darts Corporation (PDC), the body run by sports promoter Eddie Hearn.
Two women qualified for the PDC World Championship, players no longer sup pints or smoke on stage, while players from 27 different countries — including the U.S. — appeared at this year’s tournament.
That said, the sight of a player two years off the UK’s legal drinking age in the competition’s final is still startling. Though Littler’s habit of buying a kebab after every late-night win is a throwback (one London kebab house has offered him free food for life if he wins the world title).
There have been constant comments about Littler’s age since his first-round demolition of Dutchman Christian Kist back on December 20 — that is inescapable. During that win over Kist, Littler produced a three-dart average of 106.2, the highest ever achieved by a World Championship debutant.
Sporting a full beard, Littler looks much older than his 16 years, and though his voice carries lightness, he bears the mannerisms of a seasoned professional. Sure enough, the most impressive aspects of his games are elements which are typically measured in decades rather than years, such as his board management (choosing shots which leave the greatest probabilities of winning a leg) and ability to cope with pressure.
“We’ve known about Luke for a couple of years because of his feats on our junior circuit,” Matthew Porter, the PDC chief executive, tells The Athletic. “He was marked by experts in that environment as being at a different level early.
“I think it’s his maturity and level-headedness; in any sport, talent is one thing, but having the mindset and mentality to achieve it is another. Luke has been very calm, taken it all in his stride, especially the increased media attention. And you can see from his results that it isn’t putting him off his stride.”
There are odd signs of his tender years, such as his mother posting a picture of him sitting under the Christmas tree to open his presents on Christmas Day.
Another is his nickname — ‘Luke the Nuke’ — which is endearingly clumsy but also apt. With the tenderness of his age allied with the depths of his talent, the record books could face darting evisceration. The previous youngest winner of the event was Michael van Gerwen, who was 24 when he won in 2014. Littler is already the youngest finalist by five years.
Aside from sports such as gymnastics and diving, where the suppleness of youth is a major physical advantage, the list of teenage world champions is rare. Perhaps the closest comparisons are Boris Becker winning Wimbledon at 17 in 1985 and Martina Hingis claiming three Grand Slams by the age of 16, or Katie Ledecky winning Olympic swimming gold at 15 in 2012. Or, in team sports, Pele, the Brazilian football legend who won a World Cup in 1958 aged 17.”
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