MICHAEL SMITH is hoping to use the Unibet Masters as a springboard for a memorable 2017 as he prepares to take on Phil Taylor in Milton Keynes on Friday.
Former World Youth Champion Smith endured a testing 2016, being eliminated on Judgement Night in his debut Premier League season, before struggling for form in the second half of the year.
A run to the World Championship's third round saw him battle past Ricky Evans and Mervyn King at Alexandra Palace - ending a ten-match losing run going into the event - before he was edged out by James Wade in the last 16.
Smith is now bidding to return to the form which catapulted him into the world's top ten when he takes to the stage at Arena MK this weekend.
"My practice has been going really well," said Smith. "I had a terrible year last year but leading up to the World Championship that was all I was concentrating on and my game finally came back a bit.
"If someone had told me I would have got to the last 16, I'd have snatched their hands off the way I was playing. I think I only won two games on TV - one in the Premier League and one in the World Matchplay - so it wasn't a good feeling.
"It was a rubbish year, I only made one final on the floor too, so to get those wins under my belt on TV was a boost.
"I've been practising every day and it's coming back stronger and stronger each day, so hopefully it carries on into this year now."
Although Smith was eliminated following nine weeks of the Premier League, he admits that he learned from the experience of competing regularly amongst the biggest names.
"I was getting the match play but not working on my confidence and correcting the wrong things in practice," said Smith.
"Another thing was that I went into the Premier League thinking it was just another tournament playing the same players; it's a totally different thing.
"It wasn't hard, but it wasn't easy. There were a few negatives to take out of it and I want to turn them into positives this year and get back into the top ten or top eight."
Smith's clash with Taylor will evoke memories of their meeting in the 2014 World Championship, when the youngster - then the World Youth Champion - claimed a second round win to announce himself on the big stage.
"I know Phil didn't like that because he was going for another title and I took him out in the second round," reflects Smith.
"Every time I play him I think he still thinks about that, because at the World Matchplay he mentioned it and then hit a nine-darter against me!
"Even if he plays well though, if I play my best game I know I can beat anyone so I just hope it's a good match when we get up there.
"On his day, Phil's still the best player in the world. To play him is a massive honour, even still now."
The Unibet Masters commences on Friday January 26 with the opening four games from the first round, with play continuing on Saturday night before the event concludes on Sunday with two sessions at Arena MK.
For tickets, visit www.theticketfactory.com/PDC or call the Stadium MK box office on 0333 200 5343.
2017 Unibet Masters
Friday January 27 (7pm)
Dave Chisnall (7) v Raymond van Barneveld (10)
Phil Taylor (6) v Michael Smith (11)
Gary Anderson (2) v Benito van de Pas (15)
Peter Wright (3) v Ian White (14)
Saturday January 28 (7pm)
Mensur Suljovic (8) v Jelle Klaasen (9)
James Wade (5) v Robert Thornton (12)
Michael van Gerwen (1) v Simon Whitlock (16)
Adrian Lewis (4) v Kim Huybrechts (13)
Sunday January 29
Afternoon Session (12.45pm)
Taylor (6)/Smith (11) v Wright (3)/White (14)
Anderson (2)/Van de Pas (15) v Chisnall (7)/Van Barneveld (10)
Wade (5)/Thornton (12) v Lewis (4)/Huybrechts (13)
Van Gerwen (1)/Whitlock (16) v Suljovic (8)/Klaasen (9)
Evening Session (7pm)