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A teenage British darts phenom astounds as runner-up in the world championship

Luke Littler of England throws his dart during the final match against Luke Humphries of England at the World Darts Championship, in London, Wednesday.
Kin Cheung
/
AP
Luke Littler of England throws his dart during the final match against Luke Humphries of England at the World Darts Championship, in London, Wednesday.

LONDON — Teenage world champions are common in several sports: tennis, gymnastics, swimming. But in the ancient British sport of darts, they are almost unheard of.

That almost changed on Wednesday night in London, when 16-year-old Luke Littler finally lost to the world No. 1 in the final of the 2023/24 PDC World Darts Championship.

Littler had enjoyed a remarkable run of wins through the two-week-long tournament, his first ever, and his surprising success captured the British public's imagination.

As runner-up he was awarded 200,000 pounds ($253,574). His darts nickname, The Nuke, may be just as potent a portent of what's to come.

Over two weeks the young man — who began playing on a magnetic board at just 18 months — scored a series of devastating victories against men sometimes more than three times his age, including one five-time world champion that he had grown up idolizing.

He has developed into what his opponent in Wednesday night's final, 28-year-old Luke Humphries, called an "incredible talent."

As he progressed through round after round in his first major tournament, Littler attracted national attention, huge TV viewing figures and a massive social media following on sites including Instagram — where stars from other better-known sports, like soccer, reached out to him with congratulations and good luck wishes.

But in some ways, Littler remains a relatively ordinary teenager — talking of his exploits on the Xbox game console and his practice of ordering pizza before each major match.

As a sport, darts requires precise technique and intense focus as players compete to land their flight darts — about 6 inches in length — on very small targets that fill a bullseye board in a complicated numerical pattern, rather like a clock face.

Luke Humphries of England lifts the trophy after winning the 2023/24 Paddy Power World Darts Championship Final against Luke Littler of England, at Alexandra Palace in London, Wednesday.
Tom Dulat / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Luke Humphries of England lifts the trophy after winning the 2023/24 Paddy Power World Darts Championship Final against Luke Littler of England, at Alexandra Palace in London, Wednesday.

And in a major contest like the World Darts Championship, the raucous fans watching with drinks in hand make that kind of task far tougher.

But beyond Littler's painstaking precision, what he proved he also possesses is an extraordinary self-confidence and assurance — even in the tensest moments.

Those who know him well say he thrives on pressure, but Wednesday night his calm composure was not enough to carry him to victory against Humphries, currently the world's best-ranked player.

Even in defeat, Littler sounded both positive and mature beyond his years in his post-match interviews before a crowd chanting his name.

Runner-up Luke Littler of England celebrates with his trophy after the World Darts Championship final in London, Wednesday.
Tom Dulat / Getty Images
/
Getty Images
Runner-up Luke Littler of England celebrates with his trophy after the World Darts Championship final in London, Wednesday.

"I've got to the final, and I might not get to the final for the next five to 10 years," he told tournament broadcaster Sky Sport. "I can say I'm a runner-up and now I just want to go and win it."

The teenager started this contest ranked 164th in the world, but has now earned entry to the sport's permanent professional league for the coming year.

Perhaps just as significant, Littler has helped win over a whole new generation of British fans, both young and old. Over the past two weeks as he competed, stores selling darts have reported a significant spike in their sales.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Willem Marx