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Melissa Alves with the Nash Cup trophy

Melissa Alves on Race, Society and Inclusivity

Exclusive by RJ Mitchell

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In the second of our interviews with PSA stars past and present focusing on their experiences of the burning issues that are impacting on society during this turbulent summer, we talk to French Guianese star Melissa Alves.

The World No.36 was born of mixed parentage in what is an overseas region of France situated on the northern Atlantic coast of South America in the Guianas, which borders Brazil to the east and south and Suriname to the west, in what is the only territory of the mainland Americas to have full integration in a European country.

Melissa moved to France when she was 16 to become part of the French national squash set-up and is now a key member of super coach Philippe Signoret’s set-up which has World No. 4 Camille Serme as its figurehead.

But the 26-year-old has also spent an interesting period in the Ivy League with UPenn before blossoming into one of the PSA World Tour’s most promising rising stars, all of which have provided her with a perceptive view of the challenges facing the globe.

“I am from French Guiana, where I was born and raised just like my mum and I have a white dad. I grew up on Kourou and although French Guiana is a French state in South America and one where we have a lot of different cultures, maybe as many as 30, from different places like Brazil and Jamaica, our country is inhabited by mainly black people,” explained Melissa.

She continued: “But our predominant cultural aspects do hark back to a heritage of slavery dating back to the 17th and 18th centuries and the main language spoken is French Guianese Creole which reflects that.

“When I was 16, I moved to France to play and train with the French national squad up until the age of around 20, so I was based in Paris for around four years where I was able to absorb and enjoy the culture of one of Europe’s most happening multi-cultural capitals.

Alves (right) was part of the victorious French team at the women's 2019 European Squash Team Championships

“Then I moved over to the US where I went to a boarding school for a year and that was when I first had to deal with issues surrounding the colour of my skin. At my boarding school 96% of the kids were white and when it came to the squash team, well I was the only black girl and that was a huge change from back home. It was also the same when I attended UPenn and played in the Ivy League, there were very few black players competing in squash in that context and that was a little bit unsettling.

“So really I moved from one society into another that provided me with strong contrasts but what I can honestly say I have never had any bad experiences in a squash context. But what I do find a bit unnerving, especially in the USA, is that when you are playing certain events, which are held at country clubs, then the only black people I come across are security guards or locker attendants and that can definitely make you feel that you don’t belong there.

“So if I’m completely honest I don’t feel that comfortable playing events in country clubs and my boyfriend, who is a black American, just doesn’t like to come and watch me at these events and that tells a story and is something that is really disappointing.

“On top of this when I was at UPenn I coached a promising young girl and we would go to tournaments and I was asked on several occasions if I was part of the urban squash programme, that is because 80 to 90% of the urban squash programme in the US is made up of black people and because of that they just assumed that was where I was from and again that was something that disappointed me.”

It was across the pond that Alves suffered her most harrowing experience as the difference in societal attitudes to race and colour in the USA were brought home during last year’s US Open.

Melissa recalled: “My most negative experience happened last year when I was playing in the US Open in Philadelphia. I had been invited over to dinner by my old coach from UPenn, Jack Wyant, and I had hired a nice car which was a convertible to make the journey.

“Well my boyfriend also came along and he said to me that if the cops saw us they would pull us over as we were two black kids driving to and through a white neighbourhood in a convertible and for sure he was right.

“This cop car appeared from nowhere, the lights flashed, and they pulled us over and the cop wanted to see my passport. Right away my boyfriend spread his hands on the dashboard without even being asked to do so and I saw that he was terrified, which was really scary for me.

Alves (centre) with her fellow UPenn students

“The problem was that my passport was in the glove compartment at my boyfriend’s side and he wouldn’t move his hand towards it as he was scared, he’d spook the cop. Eventually the cop asked him to open it real slow and he did and eventually all was good and we went on our way but that really brought home to me just how much there is an issue in the US.

“The bottom line is my boyfriend was very worried, to say the least, about the whole situation and we were just two innocent people driving to dinner.”

Yet Alves is delighted to underline the point that the PSA Tour is a totally inclusive place of work for her in which she feels both at home and accepted for herself and the French star is hoping that as her profile rises she can provide a figurehead for young black girls to be attracted to squash in the same way that tennis icon Serena Williams has played a such a huge part for her sport.

The French No.3 said: “I can honestly say the PSA Tour is the most welcoming and inclusive place to play your sport and everyone is treated the same no matter the colour of their skin.

“If you look at the rankings in the women’s game then the top 10 is dominated by girls with brown skin from Egypt, we have great players from Asia and although the numbers of black players may not be high, I am very comfortable in the tour environment.

“Hand on heart I have never had a bad experience on the PSA Tour and that is massive because you are never going to be able to focus on your squash if you don’t feel comfortable in your work or competitive environment and I am totally at home in mine. For sure the PSA deserve a lot of credit for making the tour a happy place to be.

“But you know you look at other sports like tennis where they have Serena Williams and it would be great to get a black female athlete to the top of the squash rankings and I think it would just do so much for our sport in encouraging young black girls to take the game up.

“Squash is such a great sport and on a personal note the higher I can go in the rankings the more I can do to encourage all these young girls out there who are looking for that figure who they can relate to in our sport.”

As a valued member of the Philippe Signoret stable, Alves is in a unique place to nail down what makes the Frenchman such a successful coach and what has driven her compatriot Camille Serme to multiple major winner.

Alves pictured with Camille Serme (left)

She said: “I get to train with Cami every day and it is simply great for my game. We are both coached by Philippe Signoret and we are based in Creteil, near Paris, and it’s a fantastic set up.

“To be able to train and work with Cami everyday and get chopped up by her is just tremendous for my development. But seriously I am just learning so much from her from the way she brings so much focus to the practice court every single time she walks on it.

“Her mental approach is also so strong, and everything is just meticulous and has to be done to the absolute best quality she can produce and that is why she is a major winner and a top three player. For me it is trying to match her and drive my standards up to her level. Really, I learn things from Cami and she doesn’t even know she is teaching me, it is just that good to work with her.”

Turning to super coach Signoret, Melissa reflected: “Philippe is just an awesome coach. He has brought Cami all the way up to the very top of the women’s game and she has stayed true to him so that tells you just how good he is and how highly Cami rates Philippe.

“But he is extraordinarily strong on video analysis, he will watch all your matches and I think sometimes he is watching squash at 3am to fit all in and he misses nothing in terms of detail. But Philippe is also excellent at staying in touch with you, texting you, encouraging you, he just cares about his players.

“I have also been doing an awful lot of work with fitness coach Thomas Adriaens, who has for long worked with Greg Gaultier and my conditioning, because of that is the best it has been and really I can’t wait for the tour suspension to lift, I am desperate to get back on tour and pursue my goals.”

“My target is to break the top 20 this season coming. I feel like I have the right team behind me, I have done an awful lot of work over the lockdown to improve my fitness, conditioning and mobility and I am very happy with where I am at.”

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