Who after Saina, Sindhu? It can be Unnati Hooda with a lot of adjustments in the game and a lot of hard work

Who after Saina, Sindhu?  It can be Unnati Hooda with a lot of adjustments in the game and a lot of hard work

India’s perennial question of who after Saina Nehwal and PV Sindhu has no clear answers, neatly wrapped in a box with only a ribbon to untie. It’s not as easy as an episode of Succession, with popcorn smashers cackling over the eliminations of the underdogs from a vacant gallery. But of the new crop of young shooters, it is Unnati Hooda of Rohtak, Haryana, who may well hit the ground running, given her sheer panache and fearlessness that comes from not indulging too many thoughts of loss.

Picked for the Uber Cup as India frantically searches for the next batch, Unnati has shown she can put together a good week of wins.

She had a nice run at Asia U17 last week where she reached the final, losing to Sarunrak Vitidsarn 18-21, 21-9, 14-21. Sarunrak is a typical Thai, more skilled even in juniors than her peers from other parts of the world. She also comes from a family that has overseen the successful transition to seniors of WC finalist, her brother Kunlavut Vitidsarn. On the whole, Sarunrak plays a safe, even game and can spin a few deceptive ones online.

Unnati, while her attack has a refreshing lack of reserve and can be downright brutal, has a few big missing pieces in her game – not surprising in a junior. The backhand low defense at the net result is still in progress. And the long shuttles from the midfield and the parallel play coming in her face can confuse her.

Unnati, who also became the Khelo India champion last month. (Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

She has a wicked forbidden reel for her turbocharged cross-crusher around her head. Although she bends her hitting arm overhead like that for the twisted zinger, it also points to an underdeveloped and at times non-existent backhand.

But the 16-year-old can certainly hit deep into the back room. There is some forearm acceleration that comes into play when you swing around the head, because the shoulder is clearly not pumping in all the power. And Unnati, while yet to tap into her ultimate explosive prowess, can knock opponents back, which bodes well for a senior stint soon upon her. Pushing them away from the net with toasty throws and lumber is a good survival hack, but she also has the power to send the shuttle back properly.

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On the whole, Unnati has a competent criss-crossing attack where she can yo-yo opponents to both flanks, as well as pushing them back. She doesn’t dribble with much conviction at the net and prefers to lift every shuttle that hovers at the divider. But she has the building blocks to put together a crazy little game, even if the rise to seniors won’t be easy at all.

Unnati Hooda with her family after winning gold in girls’ badminton during the Khelo India Youth Games at the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula. (Express photo by Jaipal yadav)

There is a mental aspect to her game, however, that she can certainly and quickly work on, although hitting, skill and strength can take their own time.

However, it was in the third set that Unnati came back from 5-11 down to level at 14-14, where badminton’s biggest lesson was imparted to her. What she takes away from the final moments of the Asian U17 final will determine whether she can take the blows on the chin and have a steel jaw.

This is also about badminton’s unwritten etiquette – like apologizing after a lucky net chord, or at least not celebrating the particular point of reaching the opponent. Accepting line calls is what the respectful, resolute Asian pros do. They bite back their foaming fury on the reverse and avoid lengthy protests, while not dwelling on the last point. And they recoil from the precipice of resentment that can destroy themselves.

khelo india youth games 2022 badminton Badminton player Unnati Hooda receives her medal. (Express photo)

Here’s what happened. The decision was fine until the score 14-15, Unnati a point behind, but definitely resurrected. A 56-shot rally—perhaps the longest of the game that didn’t have too many long ones—followed.

Unnati was forced to the net and back by Sarunrak in the punishing exchange, before the Thai sent one cross behind. It may – or may not – have cut the line. In vain the Indian pursued, and fell exhausted on his back, but held out his hand in challenge.

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The chair umpire either didn’t see the hand or considered it too late, and Unnati couldn’t be blamed because she had collapsed completely broken. Still, she would get up and approach the chair and insist that the challenge be considered. “But I had raised my hand” was her refrain, and finally the tournament umpire had to step in and appease the player and the unyielding chair.

There was nothing wrong with the protests and with a nicely balanced match Unnati knew how crucial the 14-15 to 14-16 point could be. So she kept at it. But after she was finally denied, the youngster would allow the unresolved moment to distort her thoughts. Sarunrak did nothing exceptional and kept the shuttle in play after that. But the storm of the prolonged disorder was so great that Unnati failed to score a single point after that, going down 14-21. It was a mix of wild errors and the Thai’s steady play gave Sarunrak the title unopposed in the end.

Unnati Hooda , BWF World Junior Badminton Championships , Anupama Upadhyaya , BWF World Championships , lakshya sen , Badminton News , Sports News , Indian Express News , Indian Express sports Odisha Open winner Unnati Hooda dashed all hopes with a 21-8 21-6 win over Germany’s Selin Hubsch. (FILE)

Unnati had the threatening game to pressure Sarunrak. She is not a gi-oper by any account. The young Orissa Super 100 winner from this season was not second best at all on the day. But in that one moment of chaos, Unnati would squander a title run. She will compete for more finals from now on, but it is this “how not to finish” and let anger defeat her game, she can take as the silver lesson of the silver.

It is not unique. Nehwal suffered a loss on a bigger stage once – against Mia Blichfeldt – amidst a similar flux. It cost her a world medal in 2019 – in her last consistently contested season. PV Sindhu won an eventual appeal for a disputed decision against Akane Yamaguchi much later. But the dismay she felt at that moment in the Asian Championship final cost her the title, as her game unraveled immediately after a similar moment when she felt badly finished.

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PV Sindhu and Saina Nehwal. (File)

Despite technology and challenges, badminton will always have those conversations that don’t go a player’s way. Rank unfair too. But the sport requires you to let go of the disharmony you feel at that moment right then and there, and quickly jog your focus back to the next point. Otherwise, the game may crash. It was literally the same smashes, but sprayed wide, overrun and pounded wildly because Unnati was caught in the stormy vortex.

Still very young and inexperienced, it’s something Unnati has to learn quickly. Sure the rally had killed the body as it went on and losing the point after that level of exhaustion could negatively monopolize the moments. But those decisions not to go into a war with the chair, while leaving the composure for the finish, could prove the difference between winning and losing.

It didn’t help that the on-field coach joined in to argue her case, instead of pulling his player away from the conundrum. However, this will not be the first or last time this happens. Letting that rob her of the opportunity to win gold could be a lifelong lesson.

It’s not like the Chinese, Japanese, or Ratchanok Intanon and Tai Tzu Ying accept judgments without fuss and move on to the next point because they are openly deferential to their leader’s authority. It just makes more sense because more often than not you end up missing your own game in the process and handing the edge to your opponents, as your composure is lost.

Unnati is far too promising to let this happen again. There are bigger titles than the Asian U17 that await her.

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