Exclusive by RJ Mitchell
It is less than two weeks since Raneem El Welily took the world of squash by surprise and announced her retirement from the game at just 31 years old and following a 19-month reign as World No.1.
With Nouran Gohar’s ascension to the summit of the PSA Women’s World Rankings confirmed on July 1 there is a new name and a new face at the apex of the women’s game and the change at the top has also sent a ripple of change surfing back down the top 10.
Philippe Signoret has coached the new World No.3 from her days as a junior to become a British Open champion and was emotionally acclaimed by Serme in New York for his pivotal role in helping her claim her second J.P. Morgan Tournament of Champions title in January, confirming her status as one of the main threats to Gohar’s World No.1 mantle.
But now, as the eloquent Frenchman assessed the new dynamic at the top of the ladies game, he was keen to pay a fitting tribute to El Welily and put her place in the pantheon of great women's players firmly in context.
“First of all, I would have to admit that Raneem’s retirement was and wasn’t a surprise. But it was extremely hard to read her social media post and when I spoke to her, I told her it was the end of an era.
“I have known Raneem from when she was a kid back in the under-13s which was the beginning of my international coaching career, so I have coached Camille against her many, many times and so, I must be honest, Raneem helped me to improve a lot as a coach.
“But the COVID-19 pandemic period has been difficult and perhaps has provided a period of reflection for everybody, and I think that includes Raneem. When you have won everything, you are happily married, you are a woman and you are 31, then I guess it is not surprising after all, especially as it is clear Raneem and Tarek wish to start a family.
Signoret in discussions with Serme during the 2016 U.S. Open
“In terms of Raneem’s quality as a player then you can see with the numerous glowing posts how special a player she was. But for me there have been two Raneems. The first one was talented but very irregular in her motivational attitude. The second one was also talented but so much more consistent. Reflecting on all of that right now it's like every part of her was made to become a great World Champion.
“Yet I must also mention her legendary behaviour on and outside the court. Raneem had so much respect for Camille and for me as the coach of her rival and you could see that in her eyes after a loss or victory. Truly Raneem was a very special squash player, a great champion but perhaps an even more special human being and her retirement is a huge loss for the ladies games and one that, I admit, left me with a tear in my eye.”
When it comes to a change at the top, Signoret expects the battle for supremacy to continue to rage with its relentless ferocity the minute the PSA World Tour resumes.
“Really, apart from the extreme sadness of Raneem’s absence, I think that the dynamic at the top of the game will not be affected. We are lucky with numerous players who improve regularly all playing with different styles and different approaches and the women’s game is full of colour right now.
“I also expect Egypt to continue to be the dominant nation. In Egypt you can lose one player and find 10. Seriously though we can see at the last Platinum event in Egypt that Hania [El Hammamy] will be a serious contender for the Platinum titles and some others like Rowan [Elaraby] and Nadine Shahin are also on their way through behind her.
“So, I don't like to think that it is an advantage that Raneem has retired in this respect. It's life and the top players must work on their game like before to become the next player who will dominate the ranking.
“But for me the women’s game is in a fantastic place and it's not finished growing. All the areas of the game can improve more and all the aspects of the game too. I am amazed by the level we can see in the most competitive matches, the physical abilities, skilfulness, passion, all this is in the women's game now and it just has such vibrancy.”
The Frenchman has guided Camille Serme from junior novice to major winner and at 31 years old, Signoret has no doubt that his charge will leave no stone unturned in her bid to claim the top spot which is the only ranking in the top three she has failed to occupy.
Signoret and Renan Lavigne (right) have helped coach Serme to a number of the sport's major titles
He said: “Camille? Oh yes, she can do it. When you win a major you know that anything is possible and perhaps all that is needed is to be more consistent, but I can trust Camille will do everything to reach the top of the rankings and win a world title and also that whatever happens she will regret nothing, she will have tried and given it her all.
“But we have a deal. Become No.1 in the next three years and yes, I believe she can do it but the more important thing for Cami is to believe she can do it and do everything to achieve that. For me I am sure she will.
“Yes, she can improve of course but at 31 you have to play your game and just adjust some details. But there are secrets I will keep, mon ami.
In France the lockdown has been lifted with greater speed than other parts of the globe and Signoret reckons this will prove an advantage for his stable when the global game resumes.
He said: “We are lucky in France that we have been back on court for one month now. Camille and all the players on my team have worked ridiculously hard since the beginning of the lockdown.
“They are very motivated but without certainty of the future it will be difficult to keep the faith. I look forward to watching the tour resume, to watch Camille’s new work approach. Like I used to say, for me a player is like a formula one car. She has, with the technician, to adjust her game tournament to tournament. It’s good to keep your motivation up, even if you don’t get the result you wanted.
“But when the PSA World Tour does resume I am sure Camille will be very motivated and hungry for more victories and big battles, as will all the top players.”
Yet as he reflected on the coronavirus enforced suspension of squash, Signoret admitted it has proven a challenge from a coaching point of view: “At the beginning we were flabbergasted by what happened. But very quickly we realised it was a moment for work on things we don’t have enough time for during the season. Videos, mental imagery and statistics, there has been plenty to do believe me.
“It’s not easy to train in teleworking. Even if we have increased the videos, I was not used to doing some video chat training.
Melissa Alves in another of Signoret's charges.
“But most importantly I had to support the girls in the best way I can, Camille, Melissa [Alves], Enora [Villard], Elise [Romba] and give them all my positivity, but it has been difficult without a competitive goal. “
But Signoret has high hopes for another of his stable and with Melissa Alves hitting a career high World No.35 in this week’s PSA rankings he sees a big future for the French No.3 ahead: “Yes, definitely Melissa can go far and I have no doubt she has top 10 potential. She is skilled but more importantly she understood recently that she has to work on the areas she doesn’t like.
“I can’t wait to watch her back on the tour. For a coach it’s a motivating challenge. But I have a good group of players who work hard and intelligently and I’m proud of every one of them and I love to train and coach the French girls. I just love squash, it’s in my blood.”
Projecting forward, there is no doubt about the hunger that is eating away at the Frenchman as he waits for the resumption of the PSA World Tour.
Signoret admitted: “I’m extremely excited and I can’t wait to finally watch the PSA post to announce the reopening. In France, squash is played like before the onset of COVID-19 and tournaments are now allowed, and I hope it won’t be long before it is safe for squash to bounce back all over the world.”