Badminton
At 16, Unnati Hooda champion-material for sure, as father focused on improving skill

At 16, Unnati Hooda champion-material for sure, as father focused on improving skill

For now, Unnati Hooda is recovering from a minor ankle injury, and should be up and running for the 2024 season, in a week.

At 16, Saina Nehwal was already a national champion, won the Philippines Open after beating Huaiwen Xi and Julia Wong Pie Xian, and participated at the World Championships too. The same year, the legend clinched a silver medal at the Junior World Championships as well. 

At the same age, PV Sindhu wasn’t far behind in her list of achievements. She reached the main draw of All England Championships, won the Asian Junior Championships, and beat the 2012 Olympic gold medalist Li Xuerui at China Masters. Later she also finished runners-up at the Syed Modi International.

Cut to 2023, another 16-year-old Indian is making the right noises, and who knows, she might just go on to replicate Saina & Sindhu, or even surpass them. Unnati Hooda won the Odisha Masters 100 last year, and this year she lifted the Abu Dhabi Masters Trophy, and is World No. 56 currently. Out of the new crop of women singles players coming out of the country, she looks the most promising, and for quite a few reasons. 

Unnati is unfazed by the reputation of the opponent, their stature, and the ranking as well. In her short career she has been a notch above her competition in the country, and has a sort of nonchalance in her game. She likes to set small targets for herself, and doesn’t let the pressure get to her. Cliched as it may sound, but that might just be the perfect recipe for future success.

Unnati Looking Ahead at Super 300s

“When I started the year, my ranking was close to 300, and I just wanted to improve it. I felt that reaching the Top-100 would be a good achievement, but I bettered that, and now I’m closer to Top-50. So, yeah, it’s been a good year, target-wise for me,” Unnati told InsideSport. “Now this year, the focus will shift to Super 300 tournaments, because of my better ranking. I’ll get an entry into those competitions.”

Having already entered the cruel, senior circuit of the sport, at this age, she says, “There is not much of a pressure for me. Of course, my parents are very supportive, and that’s all I need. I talk about my game to my friends at school too, so it’s all well at the moment.”

Call it the exuberance of youth or plain confidence, even an ankle niggle can’t harm her spirit. Unnati picked it up during the Odisha Masters semis against Nozomi Okuhara, where she was leading against the former World no.1 at one point. The issue persisted during the senior nationals too, where she couldn’t give her best.

“Right now I’m just taking some rest. I had a muscle strain, not serious at all. I was just playing a lot of tournaments. I’m not taking it seriously, since there is no need to, either. But I feel I didn’t give my 100% against Okuhara. But there were learnings from that match, and top players are beatable,” she added.

nozomi okuhara unnati hooda

While a lot of players might lose their sleep over not training at the best coaching centres in the country, like in Hyderabad or in Bangalore, but Unnati is more than happy honing her skills under her father & coach, Upkar Hooda.

Playing Doubles & Singles, Both Crucial for Now

The latter too has it all planned for his ward. And mind you, it is all about short-term goals for them. “We need to see how the first few tournaments go for her in 2024, and then take a call, if she needs more training, or more tournaments,” Upkar said. “Right now, age is one her side, so we need not rush. We need to achieve small targets for her. And the ultimate dream is the 2028 Olympics. But that is still a long shot.”

Despite all going well for Unnati, father Upkar doesn’t want her to lose her vision, in this small success. He feels that there are other players in India, who are also coming up, and her aim should be to be better in the world, and not just the country. “We are competing with the outer world as well. To just say Unnati could be the best among the current crop, is losing the overall vision. Other girls are good too.”

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Perhaps the most important part that not many players or coaches touch upon is, how much are they enjoying playing the sport. And in Unnati’s case, that is of paramount importance. So much so, that she continues to, and will do, to play singles and doubles both, that also improves her skill.

“She is playing singles and doubles both, so she can improve her skill to the fullest. We will do that for this year. If she plays doubles, it improves her singles game too. And she is enjoying both at the moment, so this will continue for a while,” her father concluded.

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