Rowby-John Rodriguez insists he can beat anyone in world darts, as he prepares to take on his close friend Dimitri Van den Bergh for a place in the Betfred World Matchplay quarter-finals on Tuesday night.
Rodriguez enjoyed a dream Winter Gardens debut on Saturday, producing a fine display to dump out highly-fancied eighth seed Jonny Clayton, a four-time televised title winner in 2021.
Rodriguez trailed 3-2 despite averaging in three figures, but the unflappable Austrian refused to relent, averaging 99 and converting a stunning 156 checkout in wrapping up a 10-7 victory.
The 28-year-old appeared undeterred on his Blackpool bow, pausing mid-visit before raising the roof with a trademark maximum in the early exchanges, though that confident persona masked some debut jitters.
“I was definitely nervous,” admitted Rodriguez, a World Cup of Darts runner-up in 2021.
“The first time I played at the World Championship I was really nervous.
“This was a different feeling, because I was thinking I can beat anybody, but it’s a new venue, new crowd, everything was new.
“I’m learning in every single game I play. I love to be on the big stage and my first time at the Winter Gardens was fantastic.”
Rodriguez came into the sport’s summer showpiece in the form of his career, fresh from reaching his first senior ranking final at the Interwetten European Darts Matchplay a fortnight ago.
The Austrian defeated three TV title winners en route to the final, dumping out Danny Noppert, Nathan Aspinall and world number two Gerwyn Price, before succumbing 8-7 to Luke Humphries in an epic.
Rodriguez raced into a 4-0 lead before Humphries rallied, and in a contest littered with quality, the emerging star squandered one match dart at tops in a breathless finale.
That catapulted him to within touching distance of a Blackpool debut, and after reaching a ProTour quarter-final in Barnsley last week, he claimed the 16th and final Pro Tour qualification spot in last-gasp fashion.
“That tournament [European Darts Matchplay] showed me that I’m capable of beating everybody, I’m capable of winning tournaments,” Rodriguez claimed.
“Even though I made the final, I’m still hungry. I’m not happy with second place.
“That’s good for my mindset because I want to be a champion one day.
“I do believe that I’m one of the top players in the world at the moment. It is going to be tough for every opponent that I play.”
Rodriguez has enjoyed a wonderful start to 2022, and he’s on the verge of breaking into the world’s top 64, despite only claiming his PDC Tour Card in January.
The 28-year-old made his breakthrough with a Challenge Tour title in 2013, and he’s also featured in six PDC World Championships, making his debut in the sport’s flagship event back in 2015.
He has been touted as a future star since bursting on to the scene almost a decade ago, although now he’s starting to fulfil that potential.
“My personal life has changed a lot. I had some really big problems at home and that has calmed down now. Everything is fine at home,” said Rodriguez, ranked 73rd in the world.
“If you don’t have a clear head, any dart player will tell you it’s difficult to perform.
“I have that freedom at the moment, and it shows in my results.”
Rodriguez returns to the Empress Ballroom to take on 2020 champion Van den Bergh on Tuesday, as the ninth seed continues his bid to reach a third consecutive World Matchplay final.
Van den Bergh scooped back-to-back World Series of Darts titles in Copenhagen and Amsterdam last month, and he maintained his scintillating form to dispatch Callan Rydz 10-2 on Saturday’s opening night.
However, Rodriguez has won his last three meetings against the Belgian, and he’s relishing the prospect of locking horns against one of his best friends in the sport.
“It all depends on the day,” he added. “Dimitri is a really good friend of mine.
“We’ve known each other for about 13 years. He has helped me in my career, and I’ve helped him.
“We will just have fun on that stage, and the better player on the night will win.”
The enigmatic Austrian can take inspiration from Van den Bergh, who lifted the coveted Phil Taylor Trophy on his World Matchplay bow two years ago.
The two-time World Youth champion defeated a host of big names to clinch his maiden TV ranking title, and Rodriguez is aiming to replicate the Belgian’s exploits.
“Every single tournament could change your life, and at the moment I’m full of confidence,” continued the Vienna-born star.
“That makes a huge difference. I definitely believe I can win this. Why not? Anything can happen.”
Tuesday July 19 (1900 BST)
4x Second Round
Rowby-John Rodriguez v Dimitri Van den Bergh
James Wade v Nathan Aspinall
Peter Wright v Krzysztof Ratajski
Michael van Gerwen v Joe Cullen
All matches are best of 21 legs