REIGNING CHAMP SMITH SURVIVES HUGE SCARE ON OPENING NIGHT
Michael Smith produced a brilliant fightback to kick off his defence of the Paddy Power World Darts Championship title on a thrilling opening night at London's Alexandra Palace.
Reigning champion Smith turned on the style in the closing stages to book his place in round three, after recovering from 2-1 down in sets to deny Dutch debutant Kevin Doets in a high-quality contest.
The world number one was facing the prospect of becoming the first defending champion to lose their opening match in the sport's showpiece event since 2009, before he fought back magnificently to keep his hopes alive.
Smith showed no sign of early nerves on his Alexandra Palace return, wrapping up the opening set with a ton-plus average to send out an early statement in the capital.
However, Doets - who dispatched Grand Slam of Darts quarter-finalist Stowe Buntz 3-0 in the opening match of the tournament - halted Smith's charge to restore parity at one set apiece.
The St Helens star responded with a spectacular 150 finish midway through set three, although Doets was unfazed, reeling off legs of 12, 14 and 13 darts to move a set away from a famous victory.
Nevertheless, Smith followed up a 13-darter with a brilliant 121 on the bull en route to clinching set four, and a majestic 142 checkout in the opening leg of set five catapulted him to an impressive comeback victory.
"I feel good. It's a game that I needed," insisted Smith, who averaged 100, crashed in five 180s and pinned 50 per cent of his attempts at a double.
"It was nice to show that I've still got the fight and I still know how to battle back, and I think in the last seven or eight legs I played really well.
"I kept my focus and I hit a couple of key shots at the right time. That's what I've been doing in practice, and this result has given me a big confidence boost."
Friday's opening night saw two other first round ties take place, as 2010 runner-up Simon Whitlock survived a scare to win through a deciding-set clash against former PDC Asian Championship runner-up Paolo Nebrida.
Nebrida crashed in six 180s in an eye-catching display, and the Philippines thrower kicked off proceedings with a 116 checkout on his way to a clean sweep in set one.
The 28-year-old then missed a dart at double 16 to extend his lead in a dramatic second set decider, and Whitlock profited to turn the contest around and move into a 2-1 lead.
Nebrida responded by levelling at two apiece before kicking off set five with a 121 checkout, but Whitlock avoided a shock exit, winning the next three legs without reply to progress to round two.
"I'm exhausted after that," admitted Whitlock, who will now face two-time World Champion Gary Anderson in a blockbuster second round tie on Saturday night.
"That was a really tough match. Paolo played so well, but I think experience won that game for me.
"I'm a big 180 hitter and they weren't there today, but tomorrow is a different day. Maybe they will turn, maybe I will turn up and me and Gary will have a great game."
Earlier in the night, Cameron Menzies moved through to a second round showdown against 2021 semi-finalist Dave Chisnall with an impressive straight-sets success against Rusty-Jake Rodriguez.
Menzies - who prepared for his opening round clash with a plumbing shift this morning - converted seven of his first nine attempts at a double to race into a two-set lead against a frustrated Rodriguez.
The Austrian youngster looked poised to halve the deficit in set three, although he paid a heavy price for missing four darts to seal the set, as Menzies capitalised to wrap up a convincing victory.
"I was so nervous today, because I knew that game meant a lot," revealed Menzies, who is battling to retain his PDC Tour Card.
"Winning that game meant the world to me, and I think going to work today helped me relax, because it made me realise that darts is a hobby for me.
"Obviously I would like to be in a situation in the future where I can give up work, because I know in spells I can score as well as the best,
it's still my finishing that separates the top ten from a player like me."
The first double session of the tournament will take place on Saturday December 16, with Anderson and Whitlock's tussle taking centre stage at Alexandra Palace.
Statistics - First Round
Statistics - Second Round