There is hardly anything more exciting in sport than fresh young talent. This is what made Unnati Hooda’s selection for the Indian women’s badminton team so interesting after last month’s BAI selections. At just 14, upon qualifying, Hooda would become the youngest Indian badminton player ever to compete in the Uber Cup and Asian Games.
But while it’s refreshing to see the rise of a new potential star, there were still doubts as to whether Unnati was ready for the big leagues. While the postponement of the 2022 Asian Games to next year was a source of desperation for some, it might be just what Unnati – and a few others – needed.
It’s true that the badminton prodigy already caused a stir by winning an international tournament in Cuttack in early January, beating older and higher rated rivals, but it’s also true that she still falls a few steps short of the best in the country.
Despite Unnati becoming the youngest Indian shuttle to win a BWF Super 100, the Odisha Open had a largely exhausted field with the Omicron playing perfect spoilsport. Even though the 14-year-old has held her own against Malvika Bansod and Co., she still has to face the full fire and brimstone of global badminton.
In the Trials, she had lost to both Aakarshi Kashyap and Ashmita Chaliha, who are currently considered the second tier of players behind PV Sindhu, which is also a bit of a clue. Although her will to fight is immense and very reminiscent of a young Saina Nehwal with her trademark Haryvanvi, she is not yet as physically strong as her much older rivals.
So while we were glad that Hooda got the chance to compete in the continental games, one had to wonder how good she would have been if she had competed at this level when she was further along in her development as a player.
This is no longer just a guess. With the Asian Games being postponed sometime next year, maybe that’s exactly what we’ll see. Hooda will likely add some power to her punches. Instead of just shutting down shuttles, she might even start putting away a few winners and have a fuller game on her side.
If everything goes well now, this unique wish will be granted.
Look at the silver lining
Not just Hooda, but the developmental aspect applies to a number of other youngsters as well. While the postponement of the Hangzhou Asian Games from their original dates of September (10th to 25th) this year due to COVID-related reasons is likely to come as a disappointment to a number of veteran athletes, there is a silver lining.
By postponing the Games for another year, some young juniors who might have been just a little green at the moment would have had a few more months to “mature” in terms of their development.
Take the case of wrestler Anju, who wants to secure a place in the women’s 53 kg category. At the moment this place belongs to Vinesh Phogat. But Phogat’s position at this point, once secure, slips against Anju, who has shown some steady progress.
The two met for the first time – in the selection process for the 2021 World Championships, Vinesh won 10:5. When they next faced off at the Yasar Dogu Ranking Series, Vinesh managed a narrow 8-7 win.
Anju wasn’t allowed to take part in the Asian Championship qualifying trials, but the U-23 World Bronze medalist is likely to come back even stronger against an older Vinesh when the next trials for the postponed Asian Games take place.
Another young athlete who could potentially benefit is long jumper Jeswin Aldrin. With a wind-assisted jump of 8.37 m, he is ready to make a name for himself as a top athlete. But he’s still only 19. He’s only getting physically stronger and technically sharper. He’s already among the best in Asia, but next year he could potentially be at the top of the pyramid.
Follow in Neeraj Chopra’s footsteps
Carving your way to the top of that pyramid, however, will be another story. One that is fully committed to these young athletes making the most of the extra time they have been given.
It’s obviously disappointing to miss a tournament you’ve been hyping yourself about, but knowing that you have extra time to improve even more should be an offer you should accept with both hands.
It’s happened before and there’s no better role model for these kids than Neeraj Chopra. He was probably ready for the Tokyo Olympics if they had been held as scheduled in 2020, but he wasn’t sulking after the games were postponed for another year. He just kept going.
With the likes of Unnati and Jeswin still in and around their teens this will be an important point to focus on – they can’t see the Asian Games delay as a setback but as a great opportunity for them to do better shine. Age is on her side. It’s their weapon and they must sharpen it and eventually be able to wield it.
Neeraj did the same for Tokyo – he used the extra time as a blessing. In 2021 he had set a new national record early in the season and stayed on track. And of course there was the biggest medal of all at the Tokyo Games with a massive 87.58 meter throw.
With Neeraj to look back on as an immediate inspiration, one can hope that this current group of youngsters will manage to find a way to empower themselves even more and repeat similar golden deeds once their moment arrives.