PHIL TAYLOR began his final challenge to win the BetVictor World Matchplay title with a 10-5 win over Gerwyn Price in Blackpool on Sunday night, setting up a second round tie with Raymond van Barneveld.
Taylor, the 15-time World Matchplay champion, is making his final Winter Gardens appearance this week ahead of his impending retirement, and took on the fast-emerging Welshman Price in a potentially tricky first round tie.
Although Taylor took out 106 and 151 as he took an early 3-1 lead, Price powered home a brilliant 170 checkout as he hit back to level, sharing the opening ten legs with the 56-year-old.
An 82 finish saw Taylor edge back ahead, before he punished four misses at tops from Price across the next two legs to crucially move 8-5 up, before a brace of double 16 checkouts sealed the win.
"It was a steady game but I'm through and that's the important thing," said Taylor. "The crowd were great and it was a tough battle.
"Gerwyn's a difficult player to beat. I like him and I want him to carry on because you need players like him, he looks great and he's got character."
Taylor admitted to being emotional as he returned to the venue where he has been most successful, saying: "I felt fine until I got here but then I did an interview with Sky and it got me thinking, and I was nervous.
"I'd love to win this week, of course, and I'll be giving it my best shot but I'm going to go up there and enjoy it too and that makes you more dangerous when you're relaxed.
"I'll get better as each round goes and I can have a day off now and then get ready for the second round."
Taylor now meets great rival Van Barneveld in a tasty second round fixture, after the 2010 finalist fended off Joe Cullen's fightback to claim a 10-8 win.
Cullen's early 150 checkout gave him a 2-1 lead, only for Van Barneveld to post a 124 finish as he won five straight legs to take command at 6-2 before he also moved 8-3 up.
Cullen landed a 180 and a 120 finish as he hit back with a 12-darter and then produced an outstanding 11-dart leg and a 72 finish as he pulled back to 8-6 - but crucially the Bradford youngster missed three darts at tops to cut the gap to one leg.
Van Barneveld posted double 12 to move a leg away from victory, and though Cullen took out 100 and double eight to keep his hopes alive, a miss at double ten for a 140 finish allowed the Dutchman in on double 16 to finally secure the win.
"The first round is always tough and you know what you have to do," said Van Barneveld. "I know how well Joe can play and I'm very happy to win this.
"Being 8-3 doesn't mean you're going to win the game, and Joe played out of his skin in the last few legs.
"Now I can focus on Phil because I wasn't looking that far ahead after the draw came out because I've been pretty vulnerable World Matchplay so I had to make sure I won my first game.
"Phil's been the greatest player in the world for the last two decades. I'm going to work hard for the next two days to prepare for it because Phil never plays badly against me, but I'm better when I know what I have to do."
Dave Chisnall produced a strong finale to come from behind and defeat Mervyn King 10-7 as he moved through to the last 16 in Blackpool.
A tight contest saw the former semi-finalist lead 2-1 early on before Chisnall won three successive legs to move 4-2 up, with King levelling before the St Helens man landed double eight for a 5-4 cushion.
King took out 90 and 64 to edge ahead, only to see Chisnall hit top form with three 180s and a 103 checkout as he won four straight legs to move 9-6 up.
King punished three missed match darts from Chisnall to keep the contest alive with a 180 and double eight, but the three-time quarter-finalist responded with a maximum before taking out 76 to seal the win.
"Mervyn's been playing well so I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn't think it was going to be that tough," said Chisnall.
"We weren't at our best and we both played some sloppy darts, and in the next game I've got to play better. The first round is always my hardest game, so now I can kick on and relax."
Chisnall now meets Alan Norris, who produced some majestic finishing as he came from 3-0 down to defeat Kim Huybrechts 10-6.
Belgian ace Huybrechts, bidding to win his first game at the World Matchplay in six attempts, hit 180s in the opening two legs as well as an 11-darter before taking out double 16 to lead 3-0 with a perfect finishing record.
However, a slip in leg four, where Huybrechts missed a single 20 to set up tops on a 120 finish, allowed Norris in on double eight to get off the mark.
The qualifier then produced a show-stopping 155 combination of treble 19, treble 16 and bullseye to bring the Winter Gardens crowd to its feet, before taking out 85 and 127 to move ahead at 4-3.
He also won the next four legs - punishing missed doubles from Huybrechts on three occasions - to open up an 8-3 lead, before the Dutchman finished 66 and a 13-darter to cut the gap to three legs.
Tops moved Norris to the brink of victory, and though four misses in the next allowed Huybrechts to take out 72 and keep the tie alive, a quartet of missed doubles by the Belgian allowed the Bo'ness-based thrower in on tops to complete the fightback.
"I took a few legs to acclimatise but I hit a couple of big checkouts at the right time to turn it around," said Norris. "I was struggling a bit but the 155 went in perfectly and once I got a foothold my doubles were going in.
"It wasn't my best game but it means everything. It's massive and I can't wait for Wednesday against Dave now."
Daryl Gurney survived missed match darts from Benito van de Pas before he enjoyed his first win on the BetVictor World Matchplay stage with an 11-9 tie-break defeat of the Dutch youngster.
After finding himself 2-1 down in the early stages, Gurney took out a superb 142 finish to level and three further legs to open up a 5-2 cushion.
Van de Pas hit back with two legs before levelling in brilliant fashion with a spectacular 170 checkout, and double eight gave the Dutchman a fourth straight leg and a 6-5 cushion.
The next four legs were shared before Van de Pas edged leg 16 to move 9-7 up, only to miss three match darts at double 16.
Gurney hit the same bed to keep his hopes alive, levelled and then punished further Van de Pas misses in the next two legs as he claimed the tie-break success, setting up a second round tie with Gary Anderson.
"I was lucky there at stages so I'm relieved to get the win," said Gurney. "It's my first win on that stage so it's a tick in the box for me.
"Benito's finishing got him back into the game and his 170 was great. We were both a bit nervous at the end but I'm happy with my performance.
"I'm not out there to make up the numbers, it doesn't matter who I'm playing, I want to beat everybody that's in front of me and I believe I'm throwing well enough to put a good challenge on in this tournament.
"I've dedicated myself this year, my results show that so hopefully that can continue."
Number seven seed Mensur Suljovic marched into round two with a dominant 10-4 win over John Henderson, who failed to recover from seeing the Austrian win the opening five legs without reply.
Henderson staged a mid-game revival to pull back to 5-3, and took out a second 97 checkout of the contest to stay in touch at 7-4, but Suljovic proved too strong before sealing the win with a superb 148 finish.
"I'm very happy," said Suljovic. "I started very well and I was very solid.
"I had some problems with checkouts in the middle of the match, but I am happy to have got the win."
Cristo Reyes made a superb BetVictor World Matchplay debut, averaging over 101 in a 10-3 defeat of Robert Thornton to move through and face Peter Wright in round two.
Reyes, the first Spanish player to compete in the tournament, showed no nerves in an impressive opening at the Winter Gardens, pulling clear to lead 6-1 with the aid of an 11-darter.
Thornton landed tops to win two of the next three as he pulled back to trail 7-3, but Reyes posted maximums in the next two legs before completing a big win on double 16.
"I'm happy that I managed to win and I'm very pleased with how I played because you expect a tighter game against Robert," said Reyes. "It was spectacular, I loved it.
"I know Peter Wright is a very tough player and I'm planning to win the game. All the games against Peter are tough matches so I'm not afraid of him."
Two-time quarter-finalist Justin Pipe sent another seed crashing out as he overcame Jelle Klaasen 10-5, with the Dutchman failing to recover from a slow start.
Pipe hit two 180s in the first three legs as he opened up a 3-0 lead, before back-to-back checkouts of 109 and 120 created a five-leg advantage.
Klaasen hit double eight to win two of the next three, but a 108 finish from Pipe was followed by double 18 as he moved 8-2 up.
Klaasen won three of the next four to threaten a fightback, but a sixth maximum of the contest in leg 15 pushed Pipe first to a finish, before double 16 sealed the qualifier's spot in the second round against Suljovic.
"I'm pleased with that win," said Pipe. "Jelle's been struggling with a wrist injury and I hope he gets 100% fit - we need Jelle up there playing well, and to watch him in full flight is amazing.
"I knew I could hit Jelle quick and hard and I had to do that, so I'm pleased. I really focused on the first five legs. I wanted to win the first session of five legs, so to be 5-0 up put me in a great position."
Pipe - who claimed the final qualifying place earlier this month - added: "This by far is the best World Matchplay line-up ever and it's hard.
"The field of qualifiers has never been stronger, this is my seventh year and it was so massive for me to qualify because it's been so hard.
"I've made a couple of changes to my set-up, I've gone two grams heavier on my barrels and 3mm longer on my stems and they feel balanced and lovely. They feel great and we're ready to go."
The first round concludes on Monday, with a tasty line-up including reigning champion Michael van Gerwen up against Stephen Bunting.
Former finalist Adrian Lewis takes on Steve Beaton, Australian pair Simon Whitlock and Kyle Anderson face off and Ian White takes on World Matchplay debutant Rob Cross.
BetVictor World Matchplay
Sunday July 23
4x First Round
Jelle Klaasen 5-10 Justin Pipe
Robert Thornton 3-10 Cristo Reyes
Benito van de Pas 9-11 Daryl Gurney
Mensur Suljovic 10-4 John Henderson
4x First Round
Dave Chisnall 10-7 Mervyn King
Phil Taylor 10-5 Gerwyn Price
Raymond van Barneveld 10-8 Joe Cullen
Kim Huybrechts 6-10 Alan Norris
Monday July 24 (7pm)
4x First Round
Simon Whitlock v Kyle Anderson
Adrian Lewis v Steve Beaton
Michael van Gerwen v Stephen Bunting
Ian White v Rob Cross
Best of 19 legs.