2023 CAZOO MASTERS PREVIEW
The 2023 Cazoo Masters begins in Milton Keynes on Friday, as 24 of the world's top stars compete for the title across three days of action.
The 11th staging of the event will see the top 24 players from the PDC Order of Merit battling for the 65,000 pound top prize at the Marshall Arena from January 27-29.
The 275,000 pound tournament - boosted from 220,000 pound last year - will see players ranked from 9-24 on the PDC Order of Merit feature in Friday's first round, including reigning champion Joe Cullen.
Cullen will open his defence of the title against World Championship quarter-finalist Chris Dobey on Friday night, as he bids to repeat last year's heroics.
The 33-year-old produced a string of superb displays to clinch his maiden televised crown 12 months ago, defying some late nerves to edge out Dave Chisnall in a thrilling final.
"It just reaffirms what you have always believed, that you can do it," admitted Cullen, who also defeated Daryl Gurney, Gary Anderson, Michael van Gerwen and Jose De Sousa en route to glory.
"It was my first TV final, so to get over the line at the first time of asking was really pleasing, and it gave me so much confidence.
"I'm expecting a tough game on Friday because Chris is a top player. We spend quite a bit of time together when we're on tour.
"I'm looking forward to it. We've that had break since the World Championship, so it's a case of trying to get over that first hurdle and then settling into the tournament."
World Champion Michael Smith will make his first appearance on home soil since lifting The Sid Waddell Trophy when he plays Ross Smith or Damon Heta in Saturday's second round.
Smith also became the new world number one courtesy of his history-making exploits at Alexandra Palace, and the St Helens star comes into the Milton Keynes showpiece as the top seed.
"I just want to keep riding this wave for as long as I can," revealed Smith, also a winner at the Bahrain Darts Masters a fortnight ago.
"When I won the World Championship, I said: 'I'm World Champion and world number one. I've completed darts', but I haven't.
"It feels amazing being the world number one and the best player in the world, so I want to keep that feeling for as long as I can.
"I would love to win this title for the first time, but it will be really tough against Ross or Damon, so I'm just taking it game by game."
Elsewhere, fresh from his victory at last weekend's Nordic Darts Masters, 2020 champion Peter Wright kicks off his campaign against either Ryan Searle or Dave Chisnall on Saturday evening.
Wright overcame Michael van Gerwen, Smith and Gerwyn Price in the Danish capital to secure his first televised title in over 12 months, and now he's eyeing more silverware at the Marshall Arena.
"The win in Copenhagen meant a lot to me," revealed Wright, who averaged 102 to topple Price in last Saturday's showpiece.
"I feel revitalised. If I play my game, I believe I can go and win the Masters again, but it's a new day, a new tournament and I've got a tough first game.
"I play the winner of Ryan Searle or Dave Chisnall, who are both fantastic dart players. They are probably top four players in the world when they're on it; they're both magic.
"I've got to be on my game, but if I play like I did last weekend, then I've got a good chance of lifting the title."
Five-time Masters champion Van Gerwen also opens his challenge on Saturday night, with last year's semi-finalist Jose De Sousa or German trailblazer Gabriel Clemens awaiting the Dutchman in round two.
Price enters the fray against Dirk van Duijvenbode or Krzysztof Ratajski on Saturday night, with his compatriot and 2021 champion Jonny Clayton also among the eight seeded stars in action.
World number five Luke Humphries faces a tough opener against defending champion Cullen or Dobey, with former World Champion Rob Cross and UK Open winner Danny Noppert making up the seeded representatives.
Friday's first round action will begin with a tie between Searle and last year's runner-up Chisnall, before 2014 champion James Wade takes on Callan Rydz.
Van Duijvenbode and Ratajski then lock horns, while former UK Open winner Nathan Aspinall meets World Championship quarter-finalist Stephen Bunting.
Belgian trailblazer Dimitri Van den Bergh then plays two-time World Champion Gary Anderson in a blockbuster first round tie, with De Sousa and Clemens also set to collide.
Cullen and Dobey battle it out in Friday evening's penultimate tie, with European Champion Ross Smith and World Cup winner Heta completing the first round action in style.
Smith enjoyed a breakthrough 2022 season, lifting his maiden televised title and breaking into the world's top 16 for the first time, and he's determined to continue his progress in 2023.
"It's now a New Year, a new start and I want to get off on a good note and hit the ground running," said Smith - making his debut at the Masters.
"Damon is such a top pro and a really lovely guy. I really admire him for what he's done. He has come over from Australia and really worked hard at it.
"I always play well against Damon, it's always a cracking game. My last two have been belters against him, so hopefully that sticks in his mind and I can do it again!"
The second round will be split across two sessions on Saturday January 28, with former champion Clayton starring in the afternoon session before Price, Wright, Michael Smith and Van Gerwen take to the stage in the evening.
The Cazoo Masters will conclude on Sunday January 29, with the quarter-finals in the afternoon session, followed by the semi-finals and final in a bumper evening session.