Earliest memory I have with my racket is playing street badminton with my father: Unnati Hooda

14-year-old Unnati Hooda, who hails from Haryana, is the youngest Indian to win a Super 100 tournament at the 2022 Odisha Open. Social media users have hailed Hooda as the new badminton sensation. Delighted with her performance, the teenager says: “I had the chance to play against older players and learn a lot through this tournament, so I’m really happy about that. While I’m happy about the win, I’m also grateful for the learning experiences I’m taking from the entire tournament.”

Hooda defeated elder player Malvika Bansod in the semifinals, which automatically put her in the spotlight as Malvika Bansod had previously defeated veteran players like Saina Nehwal. One wonders what was on Hooda’s mind before her match with Bansod. “Match se pehle maine sirf yeh socha tha ki mujhe apna best dena hai. I wasn’t thinking about beating my opponent, I just focused on doing my best. After beating my older Malvika Bansod, it occurred to me that if I play as well as I did in the final, I’m set to win,” she says.

Hooda’s journey to winning the Odisha Open women’s singles title dates back to her childhood when she started playing badminton even before she was a teenager! “I started playing badminton when I was 7 years old. My parents always encouraged me to play sports. The earliest memory I have with my racquet is of playing street badminton with my dad! We also play badminton in the park near my house. My father had me coached professionally by Parvesh Sir who has been my trainer since 2014. I trained in Rohtak and my house is only 10 minutes away from my training center,” she tells us.

Speaking of her dreams for the future, Hooda says, “PV Sindhu is my role model and like her, I want to one day win a medal for my country at international level.” But does being a champion at 14 eat away at other aspects of a teenager’s life? “Certainly not. I live a balanced life. I never felt like badminton took over my whole life or that I missed my childhood because I was obsessed with badminton. I think a balanced life is the key to success for every professional. I train morning and evening and I also go to school. I have friends and besides badminton I like to play other sports like swimming and soccer,” says Hooda.

For all the aspiring athletes who look up to her, Hooda has a message! “My message to all aspiring athletes is whatever your dream is, work hard for it and find your anchors – the people who support you and are close to you along the way,” she shares.

Hooda’s coach Parvesh Kumar thinks her achievement has made Haryana even prouder, a state already celebrated for producing top Indian athletes. “Unnati’s success at the 2022 Odisha Open proved that Haryana is not only popular for producing champions in strength sports like kabaddi and wrestling, but also a burgeoning place for champions in racquet sports,” he says.

So did the trainer put Hooda on a special diet while training her for the championship? “Nahi. Dood, Dahi, Badam, Choorma and home cooked meals were important parts of their diet. She wasn’t on any special diet besides her training,” he shares.

Unnati Hooda with her trainer Parvesh Kumar

What was the most challenging task in coaching Hooda to go head-to-head with veteran players? “Unnati has been training at a nice but humble government facility in Rohtak, Haryana, while her competitors have been training in big cities like Hyderabad and Bangalore which have state-of-the-art facilities. Still, her passion for her game and her parents’ support really helped offset the facilities we didn’t have,” says Kumar.

What are the strengths that helped Hooda win as an athlete? “In rain or thunder, Unnati appeared every day – be it a festival – from 5:00 a.m. for coaching. I always try not to let my students be overwhelmed by their victories. And Unnati was very humble and disciplined in that regard. I’m so proud of her. It is a great achievement for Unnati to defeat an international player like Malvika Bansod, who defeated Saina Nehwal, and I give it to her hard work and passion,” said Kumar, who credits Hooda with her win as well as her parents.

Author Tweets @FizzyBuddha

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