James Hubbard admits that qualifying for the Betfair World Matchplay exceeded even his own expectations in is debut season as professional darts player.
But Hubbard, who takes on Fleetwood ace Wes Newton at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens on Tuesday, has an added incentive to make it an extra special occasion.
The Norfolk youngster turns 20 on the day of his first round clash with ‘The Warrior’ and is aiming to make it a night to remember.
“I was delighted when I saw that the PDC had scheduled me in to play on my birthday,” said Hubbard, who is set to reveal his new nickname ahead of Tuesday’s match.
“It will be one that I will always remember, but if i don’t win then it won’t be my greatest birthday ever.
“I’ve just got to remember that I never expected to be in the Matchplay, take any unnecessary pressure off myself and enjoy it.
“If I win then that will be a bonus but I also know that anything can happen in a tournament and that anyone who is in it has the chance to win it. So I will go in with that attitude.
“I’ve never played Wes before but I have known him since I was really young so it will be nice to play him there, although it might be a hostile crowd as he is from the area, which will be a new experience for me.”
Hubbard qualified for the prestigious £400,000 tournament after a remarkable start to his professional career.
After appearing at last year’s Grand Slam of Darts, Hubbard turned professional in January and has enjoyed a string of successes since.
He beat Michael van Gerwen to be crowned as PDC World Youth Champion in front of 10,000 fans at London’s O2 Arena in May.
And Hubbard says that his victory over the enigmatic Dutchman has helped to prepare him for playing on the big stage.
He said: “Winning the youth final was massive for me. Not just in terms of winning the game itself but the way it has prepared me for things to come.
“There was a massive emphasis on that match and it helped me to learn how to play under pressure, which is hopefully showing in my results.”
The 19-year-old has coped well with his rapid rise to relative fame, after taking the title live on Sky Sports.
“My life has changed massively since turning pro and even more so since winning the youth World Championship,” said Hubbard.
“I’ve done a lot better since January than I ever thought I would.
“My first target was to break into the top 80 in the order of merit and qualify for the UK Open.
“I did both those things in the first six months and I should be in the top 64 after the Matchplay and should qualify for the World Championships and maybe even the Grand Prix, so I’ve already surpassed everything that I set out to achieve.
“It’s not just in darts though. Things have changed enormously in other areas of my life. I’m a lot more comfortable financially, more confident and everything is going well.
“I have good people around me, who are helping me keep my feet on the ground and I’m not letting things go to my head.”
Hubbard has been particularly impressive in the European Tour events, where he has claimed notable victories over World Championship winner Adrian Lewis and runner-up Andy Hamilton, before sealing his place in the Matchplay with a good run in Dusseldorf.
“I had said to a few people that I felt I needed to beat one of the very top players and that came against Lewis,” said Hubbard.
“Winning that match just seemed to settle me down for whoever I was playing.
“To beat the World Champion on stage in front of a few thousand people was pretty special and it is an achievement that I am very proud of.
“I was the outsider to qualify for the Matchplay so I didn’t feel like I was under any pressure in Germany.
“I had a good game against Hamilton but I rode my luck against Steve Brown, who missed about six darts to beat me.
“I played really well against Mark Walsh though and it was nice when that winning double went in.
“The German crowd were all on their feet cheering for me. It was a special moment in my life.”
Despite his rise to professional prominence, Hubbard still recognises the importance of the Youth Tour and has claimed victory on three occasions so far in 2012.
“I find the Youth Tour events really help with my form,” said Hubbard, who is ranked second in the Youth Tour order of merit.
“If you’re going through a bad patch it can help you find a bit of form and regain some confidence.
“On the flip-side, if you are playing well then it is another tournament to keep some momentum going.
“I wouldn’t be in the position I am without the Youth Tour and the standard is so good that it is not far off the Pro Tour anyway.”
Hubbard’s fantastic form has forced him to revise his ambitions for the rest of the year, but he is determined not to let the hype affect his future in the sport.
“I want to try and be in the top 50 in the world next year. That is my target.
“I have to stay grounded though and make sure I fulfil my potential because there are plenty of players who don’t.”
He can also rely on the support of world number nine Mark Webster, who sponsors the youngster.
The former World Champion believes that birthday-boy Hubbard will have many happy returns to the big stage whatever happens on Tuesday night.
Webster said: “It is a massive achievement for him to qualify for the second biggest tournament of the year and he definitely has the ability to cause an upset or two.
“He has a huge future in darts.”
By Chris Murphy