VAN GERWEN THE FAVOURITE AS BWIN GRAND SLAM OF DARTS BEGINS
THE 2017 bwin Grand Slam of Darts begins on Saturday, as 32 players from the PDC and BDO systems face off in Wolverhampton for the prestigious title and 450,000 pound in prize money.
The nine days of action at the Wolves Civic, live on Sky Sports, initially sees the 32 stars split into eight groups of four for the round-robin phase, with all players competing on both Saturday and Sunday.
The opening group matches on Saturday see the eight seeded players pitted against the eight BDO representatives, including reigning champion Michael van Gerwen coming up against Scottish debutant Ross Montgomery.
Van Gerwen is bidding to win the title for a third successive year in Wolverhampton, and is the odds-on 19/20 pre-tournament favourite with sponsors bwin.
"I'm feeling great after the last couple of weeks and I'm really looking forward to the Grand Slam," said Van Gerwen. "I've won it for the last two years and it would be great to make it three, but I can't look too far ahead.
"I know I'm playing well but I have to make sure I prepare for every match because the group games are short and you need to make a fast start.
"I'm only focusing on the game against Ross because you can't afford to look any further. I've not played him for a long time but he's a good player."
Van Gerwen's only previous game against Montgomery came at the 2006 Scottish Open, when the Scot took a 3-2 win in their semi-final encounter.
"It's a tough group, but there are no easy ones," said the 55-year-old from East Kilbride. "I'm playing well, I'm up to world number in the BDO and I go into the Grand Slam knowing that I can get results.
"With the short format in the group stages, it's a great leveller. In the BDO we are used to best of nine legs, so every match we play is vital to start well."
Group A also sees European Championship finalist Rob Cross and qualifier Joe Murnan clash on the opening night as they bid to make a winning debut in Wolverhampton.
Six-time Grand Slam of Darts winner Phil Taylor will be making his final Wolves Civic appearance this week ahead of his retirement at the end of the year.
Taylor, who is rated 8/1 to claim a seventh Grand Slam crown with sponsors bwin, opens up against debutant Peter Machin on Saturday night, with the Australian qualifying after winning the BDO World Trophy earlier in 2017.
"I've had some great memories in Wolverhampton and I can't wait to get back there," said Taylor, the 57-year-old who won his 16th World Matchplay title in July in his last ranking event.
"It's a great tournament and the venue is fantastic - it creates a superb atmosphere and the fans are brilliant.
"I'm excited because I've not got many tournaments left, so I'll be giving it my best shot. I don't know too much about Peter Machin, who I play first, but I want to start well because that's important in the groups."
Group C also features two-time Grand Slam of Darts finalist James Wade - last year's runner-up to Van Gerwen - taking on qualifier Robbie Green on Saturday evening.
Number two seed Peter Wright will open his challenge against Lakeside Champion Glen Durrant on Saturday afternoon as he bids to follow up March's UK Open title and last month's German Darts Masters win with another televised triumph.
Alan Norris and former World Youth Champion Corey Cadby are also in Group E, and Wright admitted: "It's a fantastic group!
"To have such a tough group will prepare all of us for the rest of the tournament and there will be three great matches where I know I'll be pushed all the way.
"It's my first time playing against Glen but I met him last year; we had a bit of a practice together and got on well - I even lent him a 'Snakebite' towel to go on stage with as he'd forgotten his!
"He did really well to win Lakeside but I'm going to have to be on top of my game to take care of him. I've been a bit rusty recently but I've been practising well this week."
Number three seed Gary Anderson takes on fellow Scot Cameron Menzies in Group H, where October's World Grand Prix runner-up Simon Whitlock faces former World Youth Championship finalist Berry van Peer on Saturday afternoon.
September's Champions League of Darts winner Mensur Suljovic opens Group G against BDO number one Mark McGeeney, with former Wolverhampton semi-finalist Michael Smith up against James Wilson.
Dave Chisnall, the number seven seed and a former Grand Slam of Darts finalist, kicks off Group F against former Lakeside Champion Scott Mitchell as Stephen Bunting takes on Dutch youngster Jeffrey de Zwaan.
2012 Grand Slam of Darts champion Raymond van Barneveld will meet Tipton's Jamie Hughes in their opener, with Welshman Gerwyn Price and Irish youngster Steve Lennon also drawn in Group B.
Number four seed Daryl Gurney, the World Grand Prix champion last month, makes his Wolverhampton debut against Lakeside Championship finalist Danny Noppert, with Darren Webster and Mark Webster also meeting in Group D.
Following Saturday's opening games, the winning players from each group face off on Sunday as the losing players also meet each other.
Monday sees Groups E-H play their final round-robin games, with Groups A-D concluding on Tuesday evening. The top two players from each group then move through to the knockout stage from the last 16 onwards.