World Matchplay 2021: Michael Smith grateful to unearth 'middle game' as he targets long-awaited TV title
Michael Smith takes on Peter Wright in the last eight of the World Matchplay on Friday night, followed by Michael van Gerwen vs Nathan Aspinall - watch the action unfold on Sky Sports Arena from 7pm
By Paul Prenderville and Cameron Hogwood at the Winter Gardens, Blackpool
Last Updated: 23/07/21 9:59pm
Michael Smith may not be feeling his potent best, but nor is he feeling his worst. A seasoned Bully Boy is discovering the crucial 'middle ground' familiar to the perennial winners he continues to hunt down.
Smith has endured disappointment in World Championship, World Matchplay, Premier League, Masters, World Series and World Cup finals, as well as five televised semi-finals, often while feeling good about his form.
Now 30 and a well-rehearsed contender, he acknowledges the value of easing himself into competitions and harnessing his experience to dictate matches perhaps without firing on all cylinders. The past has been cruel to him, and yet maybe it was the learning experience he needed.
Smith has been huffing and puffing for five or six years now. With a Matchplay quarter-final against Peter Wright pending, is this the time he blows the door down?
"My form feels different," he tells Sky Sports. "I've come into tournaments raging and playing mint, coming into this tournament I'm not playing my best but I'm winning. And on Pro Tours you see me win with 80 odd averages, 92s, 93s and then I've hit the ton-plus averages and got beat.
"There's no point peaking so quick, I don't know how to explain it. Luke Humphries played really well first game, hit his big averages and everything and then the next game Krzysztof Ratajski does what Ratajski does, grinds you down (Humphries beat James Wade 10-3 before losing 11-5 to Ratajski in the second round). I want to be that person that can hit 110s, but I want to be the person that can kill you off as well like Wadey (James Wade) does.
"I've played Wadey so many times, battered him and I've gone 'how have you got beat 6-2, how has this happened?' because I've outscored him but he's just that guy that grinds it down, given that one chance he pins it.
"I want to be that guy, I don't want to be the 'oh yeah I've got the golden boot but I don't win the tournament', I don't want to look good, I want to win now and that's the biggest mindset. I'm 30 now, I'm not a kid anymore."
Smith's mental resilience was underlined on Wednesday night as he edged out Grand Slam champion Jose de Sousa 13-11 in a second-round epic, reeling off five straight legs from 2-0 down and later killing a clutch 108 to level it up at 11-11 before pinching the next two to record a dramatic win.
Where performance might have been at the front of his mind in the past, the grit and composure was as pleasing as the scoring power that amounted to 29 140+ visits and seven maximums.
"I'm one of the OAPs I think, I've been here 12 years/13 years now, I've been around a long long time and everyone is saying it's a young man's game, I feel like the old man at the minute," he joked.
"Three years/four years ago I lost easily, it was in 2017/2018 I started to think 'you know what, you're getting old now, you're doing this and doing that' and tonight I kept pushing my head up going 'if you get a chance don't miss'.
"If I give Jose his own way - you've seen it on Pro Tour - he hits 120 averages, and I think at 2-2 tonight he had 126 and I was like 'you're 2-2 here, you aren't playing the best but you're grinding it out', you're showing a side to the game where other times I was either really good or really bad, now I've got the middle game which is really helping me out."
World Matchplay 2021: Quarter-Finals
|Thursday||Krzysztof Ratajski 16-8 Callan Rydz|
|Gerwyn Price 9-16 Dimitri Van den Bergh|
|Friday||Peter Wright vs Michael Smith|
|Michael van Gerwen vs Nathan Aspinall|
Smith was angry and puzzled in the wake of his first Premier League omission since 2016 earlier this year, and he made no secret of it.
He lamented the decision to those who would listen, until a few harsh words with himself refocused his mind.
"I got dropped from the Prem and I was really annoyed with that, I thought I should have been in it and I know I'll get slated for saying it but I thought I really should have been in it," he said. "After Germany I said 'but you're not in it, stop complaining, get back to basics, get it done and maybe you might get in next year, if you don't keep to the basics'.
"I'm still in the top 10, I still keep picking up money, I've picked up one title this year but I want a TV one, my wife and kids are at home and they're loving life and I'm loving life because I'm loving my job again, whereas I used to sit back on my laurels: 'I'm in the top 10, I've qualified for all the TV events, I don't want to go to a Pro Tour, I don't want to go to a European Tour'.
"I think COVID might have helped that because I've missed that thing again, that spark, that fight. You have six months off and then you come back and play a tournament and this year you have four weeks off, come back and play a Super Series and I was like 'this is not me'.
"My wife has got me brushing up, cleaning up and if I got beat tonight or three days ago I'd be at home now mucking out my horses, my swans, my ducks. If I'm here I don't have to do that housework. I used to always say on interviews as long as I don't do housework I'm happy."
Michael Smith keen to stick around in Blackpool...
World champion Gerwyn Price called for more respect earlier in the week, and Smith is similarly seeking his own dose of recognition having been overlooked by many when it came to highlighting the favourites in Blackpool.
He averaged 92.46 on his way to dispatching a dangerous Ryan Searle 10-7 in the opening round, followed by 99.73 as he overcame De Sousa.
A first Matchplay crown remains elusive for now, but the Winter Gardens has become a happy hunting ground for the St Helens man, who was beaten by Gary Anderson in the semis last year having made it to the final in 2019, losing to Rob Cross.
"The last two years I've loved this tournament, it's been kind to me but this year I've been written off both games I've played and maybe now somebody might listen," he said. "Even though I'm not playing well I can battle, I can fight.
"You've seen in the last two games - against Ryan no 180s but I still managed to win, and against De Sousa I didn't hit many 180s but my 140s seemed to go in okay, but my doubles again, apart from the last two legs my doubles were spot on."
Watch the World Matchplay from the iconic Winter Gardens all the way through until Sunday, July 25. Check out daily Darts news on skysports.com/darts, our app for mobile devices and our Twitter account @skysportsdarts