She has a lovely smile and lilting laughter. While talking to you she looks straight into your eyes. She understands the question and thinks a bit before answering. And she has a mature head over her strong shoulders. Unnati Hooda, all of 14 years of age, born 20/9/2007, is a precocious teenager, who is making waves in the badminton circuit, and will be very soon the darling of the sports fans in the country. Unnati at her tender age has rattled the hierarchy of the Indian badminton set-up by taking the battle to the big names in women’s singles and has entered the big league in an astounding manner. She has a huge potential and without a doubt, she will soon be a world-class shuttler.
In the four international tournaments held in the country recently, she won the gold at the BWF Super100 Event in Odisha and won silver at the Infosys Indian Challenge. Reached the main rounds in women’s doubles at the India Open, and made it to the second round of the Syed Modi memorial BWF Super300 event.
She was ranked 470 before the Unnati show started and within two months had jumped to 217 world rank. Her best performance after the Odisha tournament came in the BAI trials at Delhi last week where she laid low many top players like Aditi Bhat, Poorva Barve, Anura Prabhudesai, and took a game off the dangerous Malvika Bansod and Akurshi Kashyap, who emerged India’s No.1 after PV Sindhu.
Unnati’s scintillating display in women’s singles in the last two months or so has resulted in her selection for the prestigious Uber Cup and the Asian games squads. In both these championships, Unnati will be the youngest ever to participate. In the Odisha tournament she had defeated the current world No.1 ranked junior girl Tasneem Mir, world 67 ranked Malvika Bansod and no 218 ranked Smit Toshniwal and emerged as the youngest player in the world to win a BWF Super100 event.
The bubbly and ebullient Unnati, spoke to News18.com about her career so far, her goals, her hobbies, and her approach to the game. Her coach Pravesh Kumar and father Upkar Hooda were also present to answer a couple of questions.
You had a great time at the selections trials last week and for the last two months at various international events held in India. Do you relish defeating higher-ranked seniors? Do you not feel afraid of playing them?
I just love to play any opponent. If they are ranked above me, all the better. I am not afraid of any player. I tell myself I have nothing to lose. They feel they should not lose to a younger opponent. To me, it does not matter. I just play my game and try to enjoy myself. I am not nervous on the court. I like to play matches to see how good I am. I learn all the time.
Now you have been selected to play for Senior Indian team and the youngest ever from India. Your Idol PV Sindu will be with you for Uber Cup and Asian games. With Kidambi Shrikanth, Lakshya Sen and Sindhu around, what will you learn?
It will be great to rub shoulders with such legends. I may not get much time on the court but it will be great just watching them practice. Sindhu is my idol. Just watching her smashes in practice will be a blessing. She smashes so hard. I can learn some new techniques from her. I have heard she is a very friendly person. So let’s see what happens.
To coach Pravesh – what are the qualities that you feel make her stand apart from others. And how much time does she devote to her training?
I am employed in the state sports department. I am the coach at the badminton coaching centre in Rohtak where I have some 45 kids learning the game. Unnati joined me when she was 7 years old. She is a glutton for hard work. We train from 5.30 – 7.30 in the morning, and 4 – 7.30 in the evening. When she has to go to a tournament then we train from 12 – 1.30 in the afternoon also. Her qualities that are praiseworthy are her discipline, dedication and her punctuality. In all these seven years she has been with me I cannot remember if she had ever been late. She has great discipline in whatever she does. She is a coach’s delight. And another thing is if I am teaching her a new stroke or a movement she will not leave the court unless she has mastered it. And wonderful match temperament.
To father Upkar Hooda – Your family is big on education. You and your wife both have PhDs, while you gave up your job as an Assistant Professor, your wife is the principal of a college. We are told that your parents were also Professors and your family also runs a school. So how come you allowed her to be in sports. And how important a role parents can play in bringing up their kids in sport?
Well, our family is very much into education, that is correct and Unnati also is very good at studies. Both my wife and I hold PhDs. My parents are also retired, professors. I was Assistant Professor when I gave up my job to look after Unnati’s career and travel with her. She was never the one to compromise with her studies, but right from age of nine, she showed so much potential [in Badminton] that we decided to allow her to carry on. She won the under-11 title when she was just nine and she has never looked back since. She won the under-13 nationals, and was ranked 1 in under-15; so she seems to have huge potential. We will support her all the way.
Regarding parental involvement, I believe it should be to facilitate your child as much as possible. My opinion is that parents, coaches and the child make a team. We all have our roles, we are like a tripod – one leg becomes weak and you crumble. We should also appreciate that you can’t always win and you must accept a loss with grace and learn from it. Parents should trust the coach and work with him. And the child must be willing to work hard. That is the way it should be. We do not put any pressure on Unnati and we let her be.
Unnati, what are your short term and long term goals?
I am happy I got selected for the Uber Cup and Asian Games. Next year I want to be the best junior player in the world and in 2024 I want to play in the Olympics and I want to bring laurels to India.
What are your hobbies, and who is your favourite film star?
Well, I like to read books. I like to go cycling and swimming whenever I have the time. Painting too relaxes me. I have seen ‘Chak de India’ many times and the movie motivates me a lot. I do not actually remember watching any latest movie recently. I don’t get much time to watch films at all. I do not have any favourite film stars, but I do have favourites in badminton. I want to be like Sindhu. I want to be a champion like her.
What is your favourite food?
I like Pav Bhaji and Kaju Katli in sweets
Last question to coach Pravesh – What are the areas in that you feel more work has to be done as far as her game is concerned?
This is just the beginning for her and there is a long road ahead. To be a really comprehensive player she has to sharpen her strokes. She is only 14 right now and has achieved a lot. Her improvement had to be overall. To play against senior players she must get more speed, more control, and her ability to play fast long rallies. Sometimes she is reluctant to attack. She has to change that mindset. A lot more has to be done. As I said earlier, this is just the beginning and there is a long road ahead for her.