In the decade gone by, Indian badminton has produced several stars - from Saina Nehwal, PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth to the new crop like Chirag Shetty-Satwiksairaj Rankireddy and Lakshya Sen.
In the next couple of years, Unnati Hooda has the potential to join the list of stars who have shone for India on the world stage.
Unnati Hooda made history after clinching the Odisha Open 2022, making her the youngest Indian badminton player to win a Super 100 BWF World Tour title.
The talented Unnati Hooda’s journey began at the Chhotu Ram Stadium in Rohtak, Haryana.
From passion to profession
The Chhotu Ram Stadium is known for its wrestling prowess, with Olympic bronze medallist Sakshi Malik among those who have trained there.
However, Parvesh Kumar ran a badminton academy at the stadium and this is where Unnati Hooda was introduced to the sport.
Unnati Hooda was born on September 20, 2007, in Chamaria village. Her father Upakar was passionate about badminton. He enrolled his child in the academy when Unnati was seven years old.
“Most members of our family are educationists. Hence, we wanted Unnati to try something new,” Upakar told The Indian Express. He would soon discover just how talented Unnati was.
“She won an U-11 junior event and then kept winning district and state meets. It was then that I realised that she can take up the sport seriously,” her father told the Hindustan Times.
Upakar soon quit his job to accompany his daughter to various state and national-level tournaments around the country. Unnati Hooda would win bronze in the U-13 national championships in 2018 before becoming the U-15 national champion in 2019.
Unnati Hooda was not only competitive but was also willing to push herself.
“When Unnati came to train under me, she was less than three feet in height,” coach Parvesh Kumar told The Indian Express. “But she displayed good reach and her main strength was her focus level.
“We had to work on her service, smash, net dribbles and toss and drop shots over the years and she is always eager to learn and train more. On a normal training day, we make her practice about 1,600 drop shots,” Parvesh Kumar pointed out.
Unnati Hooda makes history
The steady progress culminated in Unnati Hooda’s triumph at the Odisha Open, a Super 100 BWF World Tour event, in January 2022.
The teenager beat higher-ranked compatriot Samiya Farooqui in the quarter-finals and hooked a big fish in the form of Malvika Bansod in the semis, beating her in a 50-minute contest.
She would go on to beat Smit Toshniwal in straight games in the Odisha Open final to claim the women’s singles title. Thus, Unnati Hooda became the youngest Indian to win a Super 100 event at just 14 years old.
That put her on the national radar and in April, Unnati Hooda was announced as part of India’s Uber Cup squad after she finished third in the selection trials. She was also made part of the Asian Games squad but the multi-sport event has since been postponed to 2023.
The youngster had a choice to make - she could either play the All India U-19 ranking tournament or go for the selection trials. Unnati Hooda chose the trials and it paid off as it helped her realise one of her dreams.
Having been a PV Sindhu fan since she began playing, Unnati Hooda travelled with her idol to the Uber Cup.
“I am a big fan of PV Sindhu’s smashes. Growing up, I have always aspired to play like her. I’m hoping that I will get an opportunity to see her play and learn from her game,” Unnati Hooda told The Tribune.
Though she did not play a single match in the Uber Cup, the experience of watching the seniors at work was enriching.
“Being part of the Indian Uber Cup team was a special meeting for me. To see players like double Olympic medallist PV Sindhu inspired me a lot. The way HS Prannoy sir won the fifth match in most of the ties inspired me to never give up,” Unnati told The Indian Express.
Unnati Hooda impresses at Khelo India
Unnati Hooda impresses at Khelo IndiaIn June 2022, Unnati Hooda caused another upset as she beat Aditi Bhatt and Tasnim Mir - both of whom have been part of India’s Uber Cup squads before - en route winning the gold medal at the Khelo India Youth Games. Earlier in the year, Tasnim Mir had become the first Indian to become world No. 1 in the U-19 girls singles category.
In the final against Tasnim Mir, Unnati Hooda was trailing by a game and was down 10-18 in the second before mounting a scarcely believable comeback to upstage her opponent.
“Even though I was trailing 10-18 in the second game with Tasnim needing only three more points to win the title, I was thinking only to fight hard,” Unnati Hooda told The Indian Express. “To win the title after such a final against a player like Tasnim feels special.
“My father always sits in the coaches’ corner as he travels with me and he too was telling me not to give up. It’s my first Khelo India gold and to win in my home state has made the moment a special one.”
Unnati Hooda took a massive jump in 2022. She was ranked 418 at the start of the year and jumped 200 positions after her Odisha Open triumph to world No. 217. There is still a long way to go for the teenager.