Last year’s World Matchplay saw a former World Youth champion triumph on debut, as Dimitri Van den Bergh lifted the coveted Phil Taylor Trophy. Luke Humphries will be hoping lightning does strike twice when he embarks on his Winter Gardens debut this weekend.
Humphries was not even in the conversation for Matchplay qualification earlier this year, but the man nicknamed ‘Cool Hand’ has produced a series of blistering performances on the Pro Tour to secure his place in the summer’s seaside showpiece.
Buoyed by reaching the UK Open final in March, the 26-year-old has maintained his upward trajectory and has featured in three Players Championship finals – a record only bettered by Jonny Clayton and Jose De Sousa.
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Over the moon to have officially qualified for the @OfficialPDC world matchplay, live on sky sports next week. I’ve worked so hard after the UK Open to get here and I’ve done it! 💪🏻 thanks to my sponsors @ModusDarts180 @reddragondarts @MarshallGroup @cygroup2 for the support 👍🏻🎯 pic.twitter.com/u5FyOyxOLw
Despite his youthful exuberance, his Matchplay debut feels somewhat overdue given his prodigious talent, and in an exclusive interview with Sky Sports, he revealed he’s full of confidence ahead of his Blackpool bow.
“I have been pretty consistent on both the TV stage and the floor, which is what I have been striving for,” Humphries told Sky Sports.
“This year has undoubtedly been the greatest year of my career so far and we’re only halfway through. I am hoping to make a big splash in the back end of it.
“I think I am in at least five of the next seven majors, so this is my chance to prove a lot more about how well I can play on the big stage.”
Humphries has forged a reputation for coming alive in the sport’s biggest events – he has twice appeared in the World Championship quarter-finals, and he’s also thrived as a ‘challenger’ in successive editions of the Premier League.
Remarkably, these exploits coincided with his well-documented battle with a panic and anxiety disorder that left him considering his future in the sport just over two years ago.
“I am very open and honest about that and it is something I am very proud of because about two years ago, it was a time in my life where I wasn’t enjoying darts and I contemplated giving it up because it was just affecting me so badly,” he admitted.
“I knew I was in a privileged position to be a professional dart player but it’s just so hard when you are just not mentally or physically there, and I just could not perform.
“It has proven that you don’t have to give up on things just because of anxiety, it is beatable.”
Humphries proud at overcoming anxiety battle…
“Now it has all changed and I feel in such a great place. It has taken a lot of time to get me into this headspace, but I am very proud of the way I have conducted myself over the last 12 to 18 months to be able to get myself back in the game, get my head straight.
“It has proven that you don’t have to give up on things just because of anxiety, it is beatable. I still get it, but I manage it much better now and it doesn’t affect me much in darts anymore which is the key thing for me. It allows me to play at my full potential.”
Humphries publicised his struggles following a European Tour defeat to James Wade in April 2019, and ‘The Machine’ is ironically his first-round opponent at the Winter Gardens on Sunday.
The pair’s paths have crossed on several occasions recently, with Wade denying ‘Cool Hand’ his maiden televised title at the UK Open, to land his tenth major PDC crown.
Live World Matchplay Darts
July 18, 2021, 1:00pm
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Wade is the most experienced player in this year’s field, having contested six Matchplay finals, but Humphries is relishing the prospect of tackling one of the world’s best, insisting revenge is not on his mind.
“It is a very tough draw. I’m playing the fourth-best player in the world. James is a fantastic player on the big stage, we all know that. I was on the back end of it at the UK Open so I know his capabilities, but he knows my capabilities and he knows how well I can play.
“I don’t think it would have bothered me who I drew – whether it would have been James, Gerwyn Price or Michael van Gerwen.
“I believe that I can beat anyone, and I want to make a name for myself, and beating the top players is how to put your name in the headlines.”
The Newbury ace underlined his big-stage pedigree by making history in the 2020 Premier League – becoming the first ‘challenger’ to triumph in the tournament’s history, courtesy of an 8-6 victory over Gary Anderson.
He also stunned then world champion Rob Cross at Alexandra Palace in the 2019 edition, before most recently producing an inspired display to thwart Van Gerwen in the UK Open semi-finals, defying a 106 average from the Dutchman to prevail 11-5.
Humphries is under no illusion that he needs to produce the goods consistently if he’s to force his way into the Premier League reckoning, but it is an ambition he refuses to shy away from.
“If I can show a bit more prowess on the big stage in the next few months, then that gives the selectors an opportunity to say: ‘This kid is good enough, he’s really up for it, he wants it.”
“My first goal was to start qualifying for the majors which I have done now, so now I’m looking further in the future and the Premier League is definitely one I want, because I think it would suit me really well and I would flourish.”
Humphries’ maturity and drive are refreshing. Many debutants may simply be satisfied to soak up at the atmosphere and savour the occasion, but he harbours aspirations of challenging for the £150,000 top prize.
It is testament to the fearless approach cultivated by many of the game’s emerging stars, and Humphries identifies reigning champion Van den Bergh as the perfect darting blueprint.
The Belgian had been touted as a future major winner prior to his Matchplay triumph and he’s duly fulfilled his potential.
Humphries delivering in the deciders…
Luke Humphries has won 11 out of his 14 last-leg deciders on the PDC Pro Tour in 2021 (78.57%). Only world No 1 Gerwyn Price boasts a better record, having prevailed in 10 of his 12 matches that have gone the distance.
Humphries succeeded ‘The Dream Maker’ in becoming World Youth champion in 2019, and he is dreaming of more darting déjà vu at the Winter Gardens.
“I think Dimitri is a good example. He didn’t need the experience that everyone else had got in the field.
“I’m not going into this hoping to win my first game. I’m going for the title and my attitude would speak from the UK Open, because I know I can make a major final.
“I beat some great players en route to that final, and that’s given me the belief that I can go on and win this title.
“I know it is going to be extremely tough because it is the 32 best players in the world at the moment, but there is nothing stopping me going on and picking up that trophy.”
It would take something very special for the 26-year-old to seal Matchplay glory, but a special player he certainly is.
Not only has Humphries beaten some of the world’s best, he’s also beaten his demons in resounding fashion, and his darting journey is only just beginning.
Darts is back on your Sky Sports screens this month, with nine days of coverage from the iconic Winter Gardens and the World Matchplay – the action continues with a double session on Sunday.
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