Right before she started badminton, Unnati Hooda used to win running races, often beating boys at speed, and was an early talent at athletics. The 16-year-old who won the Chhattisgarh International Challenge and Abu Dhabi Masters recently, continues to have a strong athletic base to her physical training. She actually enjoys running and agility sessions, though her team of local coaches, her father and physios are only just initiating her into proper gym-work, not exactly her favourite regimen.
As India searches desperately for the next women’s singles shuttler who could carry on what Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu started and took to glorious culmination, there is much curiosity over how soon Unnati Hooda could step up. She’s in no hurry herself, keeping 2028 Olympics participation as the target. Moreover, her team was adamant that they don’t need to make any major training moves given she’s not slotted in for the 2024 Games, and want to give her another year or so, to absorb all she can while she continues to train at her own pace.
If there’s one thing the lamenting of ‘who after Saina and Sindhu?’ has yielded, it is that anyone trying to walk in their footsteps doesn’t have the strength and power to stomp like they did. That needs work.
Saina and Sindhu were fundamentally physicality beasts – their smashes had outstanding power. Sindhu always had the reach, and Saina the sheer strength. You could hear the thwack of their shuttle as it travelled deep to the opponent’s back court, be it in tosses or smashes.
Both worked insanely hard on playing a formidable game of strength on court. They achieved plenty when they hit the 20s, but Pullela Gopichand had ensured their fitness base from age 17-19 was enormous so the transition into the seniors was seamless and the big wins came within the first year. Unnati will need to crack that 17-19 program, on the invisible, unglamorous fitness metrics, no matter whose playing style or what hybrid, fusion version of the game she plays.
She looks up to the two as legends without being intimidated, and is shrewd enough to know what from their game she can learn, and what will not suit her. She is thrifty in what advice she accepts, though there’s a thin line between that and being stubborn. She might believe she has a good 2-3 years before she’s expected to make the jump, but there are a few critical calls on physical conditioning and injury prevention that she’ll need to make soon. Once on the seniors circuit, it’s a breathless race for points and titles, and meeting expectations of a demanding country, spoilt silly by two back to back generational talents.
While father Upkaar Hooda stresses that he’ll take the necessary calls on coaching – whether to move to Guwahati, Hyderabad or Bangalore – as and when required, and the national coaches are in the loop, the next two years will determine the direction her career takes. Once she hits the Tour, badminton followers will obsessively demand results off every tournament, and that amount and quality of badminton needs a strong fitness base.
As of now, playing two events – she still enjoys doubles and Upkaar Hooda says they’ve not closed options or decided absolutely on singles – gives her confidence. Her three titles have come in singles, and that is most likely her path. But India has the example of Kidambi Srikanth who played doubles till quite deep in his teens, didn’t fuss over juniors singles glory and was a better player for it when he zeroed in on singles.
Already, you can see some strong riffs of doubles in her solo game. She has some clever pushes from the net, giving her an option over the dribbles. The backhand service she employs adds to variety. Her stint at Guwahati ahead of the World Juniors saw her sharpen the down strokes and net play and fake drops. At Hyderabad, she really enjoyed improvising on the net game. And her forehand cross smash that she’s always been strong at, remains the enforcing weapon.
Unnati knows this is her best time to widen the repertoire, and hence is teasing out skills from doubles, the defence and some unique strokes to arm herself with variations. Playing under trained eyes at Hyderabad and Guwahati also resulted in plenty of technique corrections, even as she achieved her target for year end of getting into the Top 100 by October.
The temperament wavers – sometimes she’s very dogged in a match, at other times, like against Isharani Baruah at Bangalore recently, there are lapses of concentration like when she frittered a 15-10 lead. She’s often been guilty of rushing to finish the game. But she’s only 16. Even as she chases consistency, what’s remained unchanged is how feisty she can be and how willing she is to take risks. She has Sainasque ability to be completely fearless on court.
Her father, a teacher of management studies, decided pretty early at their Chamaria village in Rohtak of Haryana, that he would put his kids into sport, and not burden them with academics, though she was good at studies. The resolve coincided with Saina Nehwal’s peak and also watching Sakshi Malik medal at the Olympics as she was packed off to the wrestler’s training hub, Chhotu Ram stadium, named after the iconic Jat reformer and educationist, so she could start in badminton. Upkaar’s father, a professor, had insisted on academics though the son loved shuttle. After Unnati’s first title, the grandfather himself insisted that they build two courts so the grandchildren could train.
Unnati loves her painting and English music, but she’s happiest on a badminton court. She started badminton at 7-8 years and won her first Under 9 tournament straightaway. Her father would quit his job in 2017 to accompany her to tournaments and plan her career. While she’s always been disciplined and dedicated, her rise in the sport has always seen her get surprise early results. At her first outstation senior tournament, she made a run into the semis at Bangalore at 14. At 15, she had her first Super 100, the Orissa Open and has subsequently beaten some top domestic names. At Abu Dhabi recently, she beat Samiya Imad Farooqi, a talented strokeplayer from Hyderabad. But it was a lucky net cord in the second set that turned that game. Unnati will know from her struggle on the international circuit of last year that things can get pretty tough when losses pile up.
She has a couple of years to build a fitness base, and get started on her strength program. India’s second string currently lacks in power, more than anything else. And only someone who can take on immense training loads, even if gradually built, will survive on the international scene. Unnati knows she has the game and the mental toughness. She will need to pack a punch into her strokes and be prepared for stamina to be tested, once she gets onto the treadmill of tournaments from here on. The titles turn the spotlight on her, it doesn’t take long for the attention to turn into headlights blazing straight into the eyes.