There’s more than a touch of the everyman about Simon Whitlock, the Sydneysider now ranked fifth in the world of professional darts. There’s the outrageous braided mullet and the rust-coloured goatee. In the new, jazzed-up world of darts, each player has his own theme song and Whitlock has, naturally, chosen Down Under by Men At Work as his signature tune.
But, more than these trappings, it’s the fact Whitlock has been a late bloomer that keeps him connected to the punters in pubs who still fancy their chances as pros.
“Giving up is the most common mistake,” Whitlock says, to others hoping to emulate his slow-burn success. “Three bad darts don’t make you a bad player, the same as a 180 doesn’t make you the best in the world. Keep at it, keep practising and working hard and ability will always shine through eventually.”
Whitlock, 43, battled away for years on the Australian circuit, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that the floodgates opened.
In 2010, he went on an unlikely run to the final of the World Championships – losing to Phil Taylor, the sport’s most dominant player, who won his 13th title. But the journey from dangerous outsider to top-liner was complete and Whitlock has since held his ground among the elite.
“Once I had the run to the World Final, it opened up so many doors for me,” he says. “I always felt I had the ability but now I’m surrounded by the right people, doing things the right way, and I can concentrate purely on what I’m good at, which is playing darts. Also the more I improve and achieve, it spurs me on to do even better.”
Whitlock is currently competing in the latter stages of the Premier League of Darts, a round robin between eight of the world’s top players, in which he is making his third straight appearance. In the final round this week, Whitlock must beat Englishman Adrian Lewis to secure the highest possible position in the standings but, either way, he is on track for the finals at London’s 02 Arena on Thursday, May 17.
“I’m really happy with how I’m playing at the moment,” Whitlock says. “I’m happy with my dart set-up and everything is going well.
To be second is the McCoy’s Premier League is fantastic. I’ve put myself in a great position to qualify for the Play-Offs, and I’m confident I can. It’s in my own hands and I’m after a few points to be certain.”
Should Whitlock make it through to the playoffs next week, he, like every other player, knows that the road to glory goes through Taylor, whose edge over the competition is unquestioned.
Drawing parallels with other dominant sportsmen – Woods, Jordan, Gretzky – tends to raise an eyebrow, perhaps because darts can still be played while nursing a beer, but Taylor’s record is comparable.
“Phil will always be separated from the rest. He is a bit of a freak in terms of ability,” Whitlock admits.
“There are a lot of factors that go in to it, one player might have more natural ability whereas another might have more desire and dedication. But with Phil, he’s got it all, all those things come together and he’s a very special player. It’s an honour to play against him. After him, there’s not too much in it between a few of us, that’s why we’ve got such a close Premier League.”
Darts, perhaps a little like golf, is a peculiar sport in that a player’s performance is entirely in their own hands – there is nothing a player can do to prevent an opponent throwing accurately; there are no tactics to be tweaked or adapted, no defensive strategies to be employed. It is a sport played substantially between the ears and Whitlock admits that, as the stakes grow, so does the pressure. There are obvious benefits in keeping it simple.
“I think about hitting what I’m going for,” Whitlock says. “Once I’m on that stage it’s the same as any other game. It all gets blanked out and I concentrate on playing darts.”
“Routine is important, too, the aim is to try and throw every dart exactly the same. You may have noticed I use
a different-coloured stem on one dart, which I like to throw first and use as a guide. That’s something that is pretty unique to me, but it has seemed to work well.
Darts may seem a sport custom-made for gamesmanship, but Whitlock insists it’s all very gentlemanly. “There is banter but it’s all good and light-hearted, some of my best friends in the game are Brits, too,” he says.
“There is great mutual respect, although you will always get some players trying things to get a slight advantage, but I always find the best way to get into an opponent’s head is by playing good darts.”
The sport has endured a cosmetic makeover in the pro era – it’s all packaged up with a bit more attitude and the players, excruciatingly, all have little nicknames. Whitlock, aka The Wizard, has probably got off lightly.
Yet somehow, in this image-conscious age, no marketing guru of PR flack has forced him to lop of his glorious plumage, a mullet that doesn’t so much as invite derision as inspire awe.
On the contrary, Whitlock’s audacious, throwback hairstlye has become his trademark.
“It’s part of me,” he insists. “When I broke my foot last year, it did start to get quite knotty and uncomfortable so that’s why I had it braided, but I have no plans to chop it off.”
There you go. Once again, attention to detail is what separates the best from the rest.
• Interview in association with The Money Shop, official partner of Simon Whitlock.
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