PDC stats analyst Christopher Kempf looks at Jonny Clayton's rise to prominence over a five-year period which culminated in his recent Unibet Premier League triumph...
Exactly five years ago, Jonny Clayton and Michael van Gerwen met for the first time in a PDC match, on stage in Vienna at the 2016 Austrian Darts Open.
At the time it attracted little attention - after all, it was just another six-leg whitewash of a hapless qualifier by a Van Gerwen enjoying the best form of his career.
Clayton, still in the honeymoon period of his career after winning a Tour Card in 2015, could do little more than sit back and watch as the world number one threw a ten-dart leg to begin the match and denied his Welsh opponent any darts at double en route to a 110 average.
Contrast these scenes to those witnessed in Milton Keynes five years later in which Clayton averaged 111 in six legs of a match he would win 10-8 with an overall average of 103.25.
This time the match in question was not a Saturday night European Tour sideshow with £1,000 on the line; this was the Premier League semi-final, and Clayton's victory paved the way for him to claim his first Premier League title.
The Welshman is no longer the also-ran of 2016; he has won five of his last seven matches against Van Gerwen and has claimed a PDC tour-leading four titles in 2021, while the Dutchman still fights for his first.
Clayton's rise through the ranks of the PDC has not been as meteoric as Glen Durrant's or as surprising as Rob Cross'; in fact Clayton is not even ranked in the top 16 of the PDC Order of Merit at the moment.
But he has gained recognition throughout the world of darts as the most in-form competitor in the game and a favourite for the upcoming World Matchplay, in which he could win a third TV title in four events.
Clayton is one of the few players in professional darts who has consistently improved every statistical aspect of his game over the past five years and has never taken any significant steps backward.
It is only a consequence of his never having won a ranking televised event - unfortunate for him that the World Cup, Masters and Premier League do not disburse any ranking money - that he has remained on the verge of the top ten for three years without actually reaching that level.
In the debut years of his professional career, Clayton was not a statistical threat to any of the top players and, in many important respects, was near the back of the pack of tour card holders.
He averaged only 91.07 in stage events in 2017, giving him a rank of 41st out of 64 players for whom enough data is available prior to the introduction of DartConnect scoring from ProTour events.
Clayton was also 39th out of 54 Tour Card holders at completing ton-plus checkouts; 39th out of 52 in accumulating three-treble visits and 45th out of 51 in winning legs in 12 darts or fewer.
He was, moreover, one of the worst double-hitters who regularly made appearances on stage that year; his 4% accuracy on bullseye and 14% on double 12 meant that Clayton suffered some lopsided televised losses at the hands of veteran opposition and only averaged 100+ twice in his first 41 stage matches.
Clayton was a surprise runner-up at the 2017 Players Championship Finals, coming just a month after his first PDC title in Barnsley. Having come that far by defeating Rob Cross and Gerwyn Price, however, he fell to Van Gerwen by the blowout margin of 11-2.
But in the ensuing years, Clayton gradually added accomplishments to his CV; becoming the number two ranked Welshman (behind Price); avenging his past defeats to Van Gerwen with a career-best 111 average against the Dutchman in April 2018 and winning the Grand Slam group that they shared in November of that year, and capturing a third PDC title and breaking into the top 32 in the world in 2019.
All the while, Clayton was improving those statistics which made him less than relevant in his early years - he had improved to 16th out of 183 players in completing 12-darters in 2019; to 28th in 2018 and then 12th in 2019 among Tour Card holders at racking up maxima, putting him on par with players like Adrian Lewis and Michael Smith, and had boosted his average to 95.91 by mid-2020.
The upward trajectory of his form and career fortunes augured an impending breakthrough, but until 2021 it had not arrived, leaving the number two Welshman to enjoy vicariously the successes of his countryman, World Cup partner and newly-minted World Champion Gerwyn Price, all while treading water in the Order of Merit.
Clayton is now the defending champion of two of the most prestigious events in darts and, thanks to his four finals reached in eight appearances, is the leading player on the 2021 PDC ProTour.
He is hitting 42% of his doubles and 43% of his trebles, a more than five-point improvement over 2017 in both regards; he is averaging nearly 100 since Price's World Championship victory and leads the world in non-checkout visits of 131-140.
He has a legitimate claim to be considered one of the three or four best darts players in the world at the moment.
To illustrate how far Clayton has come, consider that Clayton set a Masters record - and possibly a best-of-19 legs match record - with ten doubles hit from 11 attempts against James Wade in the 2021 quarter-finals.
Two of those hit doubles were bullseyes, meaning that in a four leg span of that match Clayton hit more checkout bullseyes than he did on stage in the entirety of 2017.
Similarly, in his victorious Premier League campaign Clayton completed no fewer than six 121 checkouts and a total of nine out of 33 in the range of 121-130, 132, 135 - in 2017 Clayton had just one completion on a similar number of attempts.
Finally, Clayton's nine-darter in the first phase of the Premier League illustrates how much more authoritative the Welshman has become on television and when playing for huge prize funds.
That perfect leg was one of a Premier League-leading 24 legs won in 12 darts or fewer, representing 11.4% of all of the legs in which he could have won in 12 darts. That percentage is nearly quadruple the 12-darter output of the Jonny Clayton of just five years ago.
When Van Gerwen first encountered Clayton in 2016, he probably assumed he could have his way against this unproven opponent - and he was right.
Five televised losses to Clayton later - including one that denied him a sixth Premier League title - Van Gerwen, thinking forward to the World Matchplay, would surely prefer not to have to face early on the man who has slowly and steadily become the most dangerous darts player in the world.