Behind Unnati Hooda's success lies her father's unfulfilled dream
14-year-old Unnati Hooda has marked herself as a giant-killer in the Indian badminton circuit. She is the youngest ever Indian to win a Super 100 tournament.
Fourteen years ago, when Upkar Hooda was blessed with a daughter, he decided to name her 'Unnati,' which translates to 'progress' in English. The word, he says, had a positive and an energetic ring to it, and hence he thought it was an apt name for his first-born.
Years later, Unnati, now a badminton prodigy, is living a life true to the meaning of her name - making rapid progress in the sporting arena. On Sunday, she pulled off a stunner at the Odisha Open final to defeat compatriot Smit Toshniwal (21-18, 21-11) and became the youngest Indian to win a Super 100 tournament.
Unnati had been a force to reckon with right from the beginning of the tournament. In the quarters, the 418-ranked shuttler comfortably sailed past a much higher-ranked Samiya Imad Farooqi (101). In the semis, she beat 67th ranked Malvika Bansod, who had grabbed eyeballs earlier this month after defeating Saina Nehwal in the Indian Open. In the final too, Unnati was trailing in the first set but made a comeback before completely taking over control in the second one.
"It was a nice tournament because I got a chance to play against several senior players. They are all good players and I gained a lot of experience while playing against them. Before the matches, I usually don't think much about the result and only focus on giving my best. When I was trailing 16-18, I was just hoping to play inside the nets and not commit errors. Perhaps that helped me get the gold in this tournament," says Unnati.
As the ninth grader is basking in her newfound glory, it is her father who has a strange sense of satisfaction. He had vowed to encourage his children – both Unnati and her younger brother – to play sports and that promise to himself is now yielding results.
"Those days there used to be a popular Hindi adage 'Kheloge kudoge banoge kharab' (those who play will end up nowhere), and my father, who was a professor, also encouraged me to study. It was not exactly his fault but sports was considered secondary when I was a kid. Though I loved playing all sports and wanted to become a professional, I could barely get permission to play for an hour. So, when my daughter was born, I decided to let her play to her heart's content," says Upkar Hooda, Unnati's father.
Olympic dreams sown in modest training facility
That his child would not just play a sport for the sake of it, but would go on to fulfill his dream is nothing short of magical for him.
As a kid, Unnati would play on the streets or in the parks, wherever she found some space. She didn't limit herself to one sport like her father and enjoyed badminton, football and basketball.
"I like all sports but I like badminton slightly more. When my father saw my interest in the sport, he took me to an academy in Rohtak for specialized training. I was eight years old then," says Unnati, who has been training with her coach Parvesh Kumar ever since.
Unlike most of her compatriots, Unnati still trains in a modest government facility but is strict with her daily regime. She puts in at least five hours of practice in the morning and evening every day. On days when she has no classes, she adds another hour or two in the afternoon.
Like her idol PV Sindhu, Unnati also dreams of winning a medal at the Olympics one day. But, she is taking one step at a time and has fixed yearly goals. This year, she plans to play a lot of senior tournaments in the BWF circuit and improve her senior ranking.
While Unnati has diligently prepared her annual plan, her father on the other hand has only one wish for his daughter - "I hope she enjoys the sport. I don't care about the result as long as she is enjoying the sport. I am sure if she loves playing, it will automatically reflect on the result."