At 15, Unnati Hooda already knows what she wants. The badminton player making waves on the BWF junior circuit speaks with the confidence of a seasoned pro.
"I want to add consistency to my game. I can pick up more skills over time, but I want to attain consistency early. I have to work harder,” she tells Sportstar from Hyderabad, where she is attending the selection trial for Asian Junior Championships.
The consistency she desires is what every shuttler chases. For Unnati, the realisation has come within barely a year of her competitive debut at the India International Challenge in 2021, where she finished runner-up.
Unnati, now ranked sixth in women’s singles on the BWF World Junior Rankings, has shown signs of progress.
In January this year, she won the Odisha Open to claim her maiden BWF World Tour title. She was dominant, winning all eight matches in the tournament in straight games. She showed tactical nous and patience to outsmart and outlast more experienced opponents in Samiya Imad Farooqui and Malvika Bansod.
Saina was 16 years old when she won the Philippines Open in 2007, while Sindhu was 18 when she bagged the Malaysian Grand Prix title in 2013.
After the Odisha Open title, Unnati's best performance has been a runner-up finish at the India Junior International Grand Prix in September, where she lost to Thailand's Sarunrak Vitidsaran. This is the loss that has made her obsess with consistency.
Born in Rohtak, Haryana, in a family of educationists, Unnati is walking a different path. Her grandparents were professors, and her parents too are associated with academics. Unnati picked up a racquet and shuttle at the age of seven.
Her father, Upkar Hooda, a former university-level badminton player, saw it as a chance to revive his passion for the game. He enrolled Unnati at Chhotu Ram Academy, where she has been training under coach Prabesh Kumar since 2015. She started with both singles and doubles and paired up with Palak Arora before becoming a full-time singles player during the COVID-19 pandemic when the academy was closed. She trained on the street outside her home for nearly two years.
"I am currently developing physically and mentally in my game. My goal is to improve. This is my first full year on the [BWF] tour calendar. I do not want to burden myself with any claims, but, yes, my target is to make my country proud and win a medal in whichever tournament I play," says Unnati.
With the BWF World Junior Championships scheduled for October 17-30 in Santander, Spain, the right-handed shuttler is confident of making a mark in her maiden appearance.
"I do not know who my opponents are, but I think all top junior players of the world will be there. This is my first major tournament at the international level. My target is to apply whatever skills I have acquired. If I do not fail to execute my plans, I think I will have a chance," she says.
Lin Dan fan with style of her own
Unnati has already been compared to a young Saina. She sports short hair like Saina, displays grit and a never-say-die attitude on the court. But she does not get drawn into such comparisons.
"Everyone is different. I am a fan of Lin Dan's. His fitness level and game skills impress me. But that does not mean I try to copy him. I have my own style. It is different from others,” Unnati says. She tips her hat to Saina didi and Sindhu didi. "They are my inspirations."
Sponsored by Reliance and Yonex, Unnati does not have to worry about international exposure and kits, but faces the challenge of navigating the demanding BWF schedule.
"There are too many tournaments, and I have no option but to play in them to improve my ranking. But if I play so many tournaments, then where is the time to learn new skills and improve? I am raising my fitness to handle the demands of the [BWF] tour calendar," says Unnati.
Another challenge she wants to meet quickly is academic commitment. Unnati is in Class 10 at DGV School in Rohtak. School commitments have often made her skip training.
Upkar acknowledges this difficulty. "What to do? Her school does not have any training facility. During examination days, she has to skip training. Education is also important, you cannot ignore it," says Upkar, who quit his job in 2017 after he made up his mind to accompany Unnati to training and tournaments.
Upkar is waiting for Unnati's board exams to conclude to move her to a residential academy where she can train uninterrupted.
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