There’s nothing in Darts quite like the Ladbrokes UK Open. This weekend, 160 players will converge on Minehead in an attempt to win the FA Cup of Darts and the chunky £100,000 that comes with it.
Ahead of this year’s tournament, we spoke to 2019 winner Nathan Aspinall about his victory 12 months ago, how his life has changed, his grandad and what it’s like for the 16/1 shot to be defending a major title for the first time.
Ladbrokes News: Cast your mind back to 12 months ago. Can you tell us how you were feeling going into the UK Open and what your expectations were ahead of the event?
Nathan Aspinall: I was playing well. Obviously I had a good run in the World Championship at Christmas time, so I knew I was playing well and I knew that I could go deep into the tournament. But winning it; I didn’t think so early in my career I’d win a major. It just happened!
I rode my luck a bit, I think it was against Christian Kist I won a deciding leg and similar against Steve Lennon. I rode my luck at times but I think if you’re going to win a tournament you need that.
Obviously when I made the final session on the Sunday I was the underdog. No-one expected me to come through that field, but I did! It was a memorable time.
LN: How important do you think that was for you personally and your career?
NA: Yeah, I mean you’ve seen all these stories where I was planning to quit. I had no money to my name.
Obviously the World Championship prior to the UK Open helped massively but the UK Open certainly changed my career. It opened up a lot of doors and it gave me a World Series spot in Las Vegas last year in the US Masters which I went on to win.
It also opened the door for the Premier League because I’d won a major, so yeah, it opened many doors and it put me into the top-16 in the world. After winning the UK Open I’ve kind of carried on really with the confidence that I got from that tournament.
LN: And what’s it like going back as the defending champion? It’s obviously a new experience for you in a major?
NA: It’s very weird! I don’t know really, it’s kind of hard to explain. I didn’t think it would ever bother me. A couple of months ago people started asking me questions in interviews about ‘how is it going to feel defending your title?’ and I always said it didn’t bother me, but it definitely feels different.
I think there are going to be a lot of eyes on me, especially if I’m doing well in the Premier League too. I’ll just do what I do; I’ll go in there and play my game and I know that if I play my game I can win the tournament, and hopefully that’s what I’ll do and defend it.
LN: You’ve won the US Masters, got to another World Championship semi-final and you’re joint top of the Premier League, did you expect you’d be reaching all these milestones so soon?
NA: Er, no! To be fair, I thought I’d be back doing my accountancy by now. These last 12 months have been an absolute whirlwind, not just for me but for my family too.
My life has just completely changed. We’re travelling all over the world which means I’m not home much, but that’s what I initially picked my darts up for, so that I could be in this position. It’s been an incredible 12 months and I just want it to continue.
I’m on cloud nine, I’m loving playing in the Premier League and like I say, this is the first major of the year and hopefully I can kick-off with a good start.
LN: With your performances in the Players Championship and the Premier League it looks as though you’ve hit another level beyond what you were doing last year. Can you put your finger on why that is?
NA: I just think it’s confidence. I’m happy! You see a lot of players that start struggling have issues at home or their form isn’t there so they start struggling and disliking the game.
Where I’m at at the moment with my mind-set I’m just so happy with my life. I’m happy with the way my darts are going, I’m loving travelling, I’m loving see my bank balance in growth and keep growing!
I’m just happy, and if you’re happy and everything’s right at home, your darts show that and that’s what’s happening this year.
LN: What is the travelling like for you guys then? You had the Belgian Darts Championship last week and then the Premier League and the UK Open this week; it must be mad?
NA: It is. And to be fair, that is probably the one thing I’m struggling with this year. I travelled a lot last year but I had the weekdays at home. Maybe it was a Friday and a Monday I’d miss but at the moment I’m home one day a week.
I’ve got two young daughters and a wife so I’m struggling with that, but it comes with the territory because I’m doing it all for them kind of thing. It is tough, we’re all over the place but it’s all good.
LN: Moving onto your game, we did notice that you seem to having some grip issues with the darts when you throw. Can you tell us a little more about that?
NA: It isn’t the grip of my dart! Everyone keeps saying it’s the grip of my dart but it’s two things really. I’ve had it for years but it’s only gotten bad recently; I have like a little twitch in my eye.
It used to only happen now and then when I aimed at D16 or D8 but it seems to be happening all over the board now. It’s something I’m addressing but your eyes are a bad thing to touch. Unless it gets really bad I’m going to leave it.
In the Premier League it’s happened a lot more and that’s been nothing to do with my eye or the twitching…I can hear the floorboards creak! That’s as simple as it is! When the players are walking past me I can hear the creaking on the stage and it’s putting me off.
It’s happened twice; it happened with Glen Durrant last week and with Rob Cross. Glen actually pulled me and asking me if he was doing something wrong as I kept stopping. Basically, I’m just that focused that I notice any little sound I hear. So it’s not a gripping issue, it’s a twitching issue or a floorboard.
LN: Moving onto the UK Open; it’s always tricky for those playing in the Premier League the night before. Have you had any advice on how to prepare; and can you talk us through your plan?
NA: Not really. I’m kind of getting used to it last week with being in Dublin on Thursday and going out to Belgium on Friday. I think I’m going to travel on Thursday night after my match. I’m the first game on against Peter Wright so I won’t be off stage too late and hopefully I’ll be in Minehead by 11pm.
I’m going to play my game on Thursday, get there and then see when I’m on at the UK Open. I could be on at 7pm or I could be on at 11pm, we don’t quite know yet. I’ll just get to the hotel late on Thursday night and then I’ve got all day Friday to just chill out and get ready for the third round game.
LN: It looks pretty manic at Minehead with the amount of players, how different is it from the other tournaments? And is it more difficult to play on the outer boards versus the main stage?
NA: I do think the top-32 have a massive advantage compared to a lot of the players; they might not say it but I think they agree with me. We’ll only play one game on Friday, whereas potentially some players will play three or four matches.
LN: You’ve experienced both ends of the spectrum I guess, so you’ll know better than most!
NA: Yeah and it is hard. The worst way around is if you’re on the main stage in the second round and then all of a sudden your third round game is on board seven. You go from playing on TV with all the adrenalin to then playing without much atmosphere at all.
Some people handle it better than others. Obviously it is manic but the guys who play in the afternoon session do have a tall order on the Friday night. But then we’ve earned the right to come in at that later stage so we’ve got to use that to our advantage.
LN: And what sort of chance does the tournament give players who might not be amongst the top seeds to actually go well and make a bit of a name for themselves?
NA: I think that’s the beauty of the Ladbrokes UK Open.I know a lot of theolder players don’t particularly agree with the UK Open; a lot of seasoned pros don’t like it. I think that’s because they’re scared about getting beat by unknown players, to be fair.
For me, I think it’s a brilliant tournament. If you look at my career now a lot of it kick-started from the UK Open. I’m in a stable with five other lads in the UK Open this year and two of them came through the qualifiers at Rileys, and both of them are young lads; Adam Huckvale and Lewy Williams.
I look at those two who have qualified and they have a great chance not just to win the tournament but just to get a bit of stage experience and to play on TV. When they do eventually get a Tour Card the experience they’ve got from this year will help massively in the start of their career.
It’s a brilliant tournament and one that I look forward to every year and hopefully this year it brings the same result.
LN: On that note is there anyone in particular you think we should keep an eye out for?
NA: That lad Lewy Williams, who’s 18 [1500/1 to win the UK Open]. He looks a great talent from the Rileys qualifiers. Can he win it? Probably not. But he can certainly do some damage to some of the top boys because he fears no-one.
LN: There’s also been plenty of talk about coronavirus and sport at the moment. Has there been any mention of it amongst the players on the circuit and the effect on potential tournaments?
NA: I’ve actually just had an email from the PDC about that saying we don’t need to shake each other’s hands. I don’t worry about stuff like that – I don’t pretend to understand what’s going on. If I catch it, I’ll deal with it then!
LN: We wanted to finish by touching on your Grandad, because you two made quite the pair last year. How important has he been for you and will he be back again this year?
NA: Grandad Alan will be back for his second appearance! It’s only kind of been a last minute thing and with me being in the Premier League he couldn’t get away from my grandma for five days. He’s now going down with his mate on the Friday.
Obviously he was a big part of it last year. He’s getting on a bit and he’s no spring chicken so for me to win a TV title with my grandad being there considering he’s played darts all his life and I’m living what he wanted to do, made it even more special.
He’s coming back up again this time and yeah, he just loves it. He’s more famous than me in Stockport! He’s coming back up and he can’t wait for it.
All odds and markets correct as of date of publication