BIGGEST-EVER WILLIAM HILL WORLD DARTS CHAMPIONSHIP SET TO COMMENCE
DARTS' biggest-ever event begins on Thursday, with Rob Cross beginning his William Hill World Darts Championship title defence at Alexandra Palace.
A field of 96 players from 28 countries will compete across the Christmas and New Year period live on the dedicated Sky Sports Darts channel, with a record 2.5m pound prize money on offer.
Cross, who famously defeated Phil Taylor in the final 12 months ago, will take on the winner of the tournament's opening fixture between World Matchplay semi-finalist Jeffrey de Zwaan and Indian Qualifier Nitin Kumar, as he aims to repeat last year's incredible success.
"I've been working hard in practice to make sure I'm ready and I can't wait to get out there," said Cross, who is priced at 22/1 with sponsors William Hill to win back-to-back titles.
"It's the biggest tournament in the world so you've got to be ready.
"I might be a little bit edgy in the first game but I was last year too and it went well for me then, and coming back to Alexandra Palace might bring out the best in me.
"Last year was completely different because there was no pressure on me, but I'm really looking forward to it. I love the set play format."
Reigning Lakeside Women's Champion Ashton will make her Alexandra Palace debut against Dutchman Jan Dekker in another high-profile fixture on the opening night.
"I'm going to enjoy the experience and for me it's great to be playing on the first night so I can get straight into it," said Ashton.
"I've had some great support and a lot of respected people in the game have said nice things about me, but there's also a bit of pressure that comes with that.
"But I'll turn any nerves into positivity and adrenaline that will have a good effect on my game and hopefully I will do ladies' darts proud."
Ashton joined Anastasia Dobromyslova in qualifying for the event, with the Russian ace set to take on Ryan Joyce in her opening tie on Monday December 17.
Thursday's opening night also features the tie between Germany's Martin Schindler and New Zealand's Cody Harris, with the winner progressing to face last year's semi-finalist Jamie Lewis on Friday afternoon.
Two-time World Champion Gary Anderson headlines the second day of action as he meets Paul Nicholson or Kevin Burness, while world number one Michael van Gerwen enters the event on Saturday December 15 where he will play either Alan Tabern or Raymond Smith.
"It feels amazing to win the World Championship title, you work so hard for it all year and it's a phenomenal moment of completion," said two-time World Champion Van Gerwen, the 11/8 pre-tournament favourite.
"I've won two but I want to win more and to do that I have to make sure that I'm ready. I know I'll be a big favourite and there will be pressure on me, so I have to perform.
"People always play better against me than other players, maybe because there's no pressure on them so I have to play well and make sure I prepare well."
Former World Championship finalist Peter Wright, Dave Chisnall and the legendary Paul Lim are amongst the stars in action on Sunday December 16.
Five-time World Champion Raymond van Barneveld begins his penultimate Ally Pally challenge - ahead of his retirement at the end of next year - on Monday December 17 against either Matthew Edgar or Darius Labanauskas.
The second round concludes on Friday December 21, the third round is split either side of the Christmas break, with the fourth round being played on December 27-28 ahead of the quarter-finals across two sessions on December 29.
The semi-finals on Sunday December 30 will be followed on Tuesday January 1 by the final as sport's first World Champion of 2019 hoists the Sid Waddell Trophy.
Tickets for the William Hill World Darts Championship are still available, with very limited availability for some sessions. Group Bookings are still available in the tiered seating areas for the afternoon sessions on December 19 and 20.
The William Hill World Darts Championship will be broadcast live on the dedicated Sky Sports Darts channel from December 13-January 1 and worldwide through the PDC's international broadcast partners.