Skipping Junior Ranking finals, little-big thing Unnati Hooda impresses at Selection Trials
Having sacrificed the finals at the U-19 Junior Rankings, 14-year-old Unnati Hooda chose the BAI Selection Trials instead to lap up the experience of playing against seniors and upping her game.
Shuffling into the KD Jadhav Indoor Hall cradled inside the Indira Gandhi Stadium Complex in New Delhi, 14-year-old Unnati Hooda settled in on the spectator seats, with father and little brother also in tow for the afternoon session of the ongoing BAI Selection Trials.
An ever-present keen, bright look in her eyes, Unnati Hooda had lost her morning match to Ashmita Chaliha, 21-13, 21-16 but not without having made Chaliha sweat it out first, earlier in the day.
Having topped her group in League 1 (Stage 2D) of the trials, Unnati was in steady contention for making it to the squads for the upcoming team events - the Thomas & Uber Cup, the Commonwealth Games and the Asian Games but a loss against Ashmita has slimmed down the chances, but the youngster doesn't lose heart about it all, as she tells The Bridge, focussing on gaining the experience instead.
With no match lined up next in the day, Hooda was back at the stadium, dressed in her kit and armed with her racquet - she wanted to practise for next day that will pitch her against another top contender, Aakarshi Kashyap, get some more time on the warm-up courts and her brother, standing just an inch or two shorter than her, turned out to be her all-important sparring partner.
As back-to-back matches occupied the adjoining courts, Hooda and her brother exchanged rallies across the net while Unnati kept checking the ongoing matches after every other rally end, a look of sharp wonder in her eyes.
However, Hooda's being at the BAI Selection Trials had to come with a sacrifice as the youngest Indian Super 100 winner from the Odisha Open relayed, "In the Bangalore All-India U-19 Ranking tournament, I reached the finals but I didn't play it because I had to come to Delhi to participate in the BAI Selection Trials here," Hooda explained.
Skipping the finals of the All India U-19 Junior tournament that was being held at Bangalore, Hooda made the choice to play the trials, egged on by her enthusiastic, badminton-loving family who are readily invested in her shining and the trials therefore, wasn't something she could miss.
The Odisha Open win effect
For Unnati Hooda, who is the next little-big thing of Indian badminton, life has been different ever since the shuttler from Rohtak picked up the Odisha Open title, beating Smit Toshniwal in the heated finals.
"After the Odisha Open, I learnt a lot of things from my seniors because I was a junior against Malvika Didi, Smit Toshniwal also. I played well there and I learnt a lot of things from them," Unnati said, no airs in her voice whatsoever except the earnest hunger to win.
"I learnt a lot of new strokes from the experience and have worked on it after the tournament," the teenager revealed, talking about the hours she has been putting in for training and taking on seniors unfazed.
At the BAI Selection Trials, Unnati registered gritty victories against Tara Shah and Anura Prabhudesai, playing thrillers that stretched into deciders. Against Syed Modi runner-up Malvika Bansod as well, Unnati gave the 20-year-old a run for her money by dragging that match into a three-setter as well.
"All players that come here are really good and the competition is really intense with top players from all across the country coming here. The experience has been really great," Unnati, a little overwhelmed, relayed.
For Unnati, playing in the trials against seniors doesn't get intimidating at any point because she has adopted a very comforting but realistic philosophy.
"Whenever I used to play against seniors, I wouldn't feel any pressure because I'm still a junior, there is so much to learn for me. I don't pressurise myself. I just think that I have to play my best," the youngster, with a smile, relayed.
"At the Odisha Open as well, there were no such hard and fast expectations, my father and coach never pressurised me. They just taught me to give my best in all the matches - which I did," she said humbly, returning back to the court, to train again.
Afterall, this is just the start for her and no time around a badminton court must be wasted - no matter the results, at this stage, and the youngster only proves it with her dedication and love for the game.