Is Phil Taylor in terminal decline? | Rob Smyth

The 16-times world champion has made a mockery of previous career obituaries. But it has never been as serious as this

When a sportsman reaches a certain age, he forfeits the right to be out of form. Every poor performance is analysed not in the context of form, but whether he is finished. Phil Taylor's career obituary has been tentatively written a number of times in the past decade, and every time he has thrillingly reasserted his status as one of sport's great champions. But it has never been as serious as this.

Taylor has lost four of his first five Premier League games, and if he loses to Dave Chisnall on Thursday night he will be in serious danger of relegation. In the past it was unthinkable that he would not qualify for the semi-finals; the idea that he might be relegated was beyond ridiculous. A drama turned into a crisis last Friday night when he was knocked out of the UK Open – dubbed the FA Cup of darts – by Aden Kirk, the world No137 and managed to bust 130 with consecutive throws. In one sense it was the greatest shock in darts history. Except by the end, it wasn't that shocking. In the last two months Taylor has been so unusually vulnerable that nothing comes as a complete surprise.

Whether it's a decline or a loss or form, it has been extremely dramatic. Last summer and autumn, Taylor was playing probably the best darts of his career. He won six out of seven TV tournaments, missing out only on the relatively unimportant European Championship, and his 16-9 win over Adrian Lewis in the Grand Slam semi-final in November, when both men averaged in excess of 109, was the highest quality game of darts ever played.

But when Taylor was overwhelmed by Michael van Gerwen in the final of the Players' Championship, a relatively minor major just before the World Championship, he could not recover. He struggled through the first round of the worlds against Rob Szabo, a semi-pro from New Zealand, and was stunningly beaten in the second round by Michael Smith. Taylor did not look right throughout his short stay at the tournament.

Taylor took the defeat particularly badly. He questioned his health, and particularly his energy levels. When he fell asleep in his chair after Christmas dinner, Taylor decided something had to be done about his sluggishness. He started a juice diet, changed his darts provider from Unicorn to Target and disappeared to a mountain retreat in Portugal for three weeks. He lived almost entirely on juices, with only the option of a salad treat every Saturday afternoon.

"I loved it," Taylor said before the start of the Premier League season. "I was walking 10 to 12 miles a day and doing swimming, saunas and living very, very healthy. It was like a training camp for a boxer. I wasn't very well to be honest. I had to go away to recuperate and get myself right. Barry Hearn didn't like it and gave me a little bit of a telling off, but that's tough. I have a tough year ahead of me, I'm 53 now and I've got to think about what I'm doing and time it all properly."

Taylor has done it all for medium-term gain, aiming to peak for the World Championship, but he cannot have expected so much trouble in the short term. He was thrashed 7-0 by Van Gerwen in his first Premier League game and was criticised for his dramatic weight loss, the damaging effects of which were noted by the great Sid Waddell a decade ago .

Taylor then lost to Adrian Lewis and Peter Wright. After an impressive win over Simon Whitlock in the fourth week, Taylor seemed more relaxed. "Now I know that everything I'm doing is right," he said. "I think people have been a little bit odd. I won six or seven majors last year and as soon as I lose something, bang – they're on me. 'You're the worst player.' And that's not right."

Taylor was beaten again last week, 7-5 by Gary Anderson, and followed that with defeat to Kirk a day later. The fear that this might be terminal decline rather than poor form was exacerbated by the staggering incident in which he twice bust 130. When a 53-year-old does that, many will draw a simple conclusion: his eyes have gone.

What is perhaps more disconcerting is that Taylor does not emit the formidable mental strength of old. Whereas for decades Taylor would win the big moments, now he is losing them.

In the Premier League his basic form has been deceptively good. He is ninth out of 10 in the table, but his season average puts him second behind van Gerwen. There has been obvious concern about his new Target darts, which he has dragged left too often for comfort, but an overall average of 100.70 is higher than last season. Yet he is missing key doubles and losing key legs, something Taylor has never done in the past.

The story of a great champion straining to stay at the top is always compelling, yet there is significant sadness in watching Taylor's current struggles. He is one of Britain's greatest sportsmen, perhaps the greatest. And, even allowing for sport's fascinating aversion to happy endings, surely Taylor deserves to pick his moment and retire after winning a 17th world title.

"I will put it right," he said two weeks ago. "And when I do put it right, I think that's the time to finish." The words sounded convincing, yet even he must wonder whether this is one battle too many. © 2014 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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