From electronic line calling to live in-match statistics, the robots have been taking over in tennis over the past decade. And if authorities want to go a step further, they could do with getting Fernanda Contreras Gomez on the line.
The No.200-ranked Mexican player, who qualified for her third major of the year at the US Open this week and will face former Roland Garros champion Barbora Krejcikova in the first round, graduated from Vanderbilt University in 2019 with a degree in mechanical engineering. This involved a mechatronics class in which Contreras Gomez had to design and build a robotic circuit. Naturally, it was tennis-themed.
"We made a robot that would pick up our tennis balls," says Contreras Gomez. "Because we were spending so much time picking them up ourselves. We just wanted it to do it for us. If the robot saw a white line, it would turn around, so in that way it covered the whole court.
"It had two designs. One, if it saw the line it would turn around; the second was just to follow a certain direction. It was quite fun and we did quite well in that project. When we took it home and accidentally turned it on, it started picking up the trash by itself."
Indeed, Contreras Gomez is quite the renaissance woman, and consequently the 24-year-old is one of the most interesting conversationalists on tour. The concept of the lockdown novel became something of a meme in 2020, but Contreras Gomez actually went ahead and wrote one. It's a thriller in the style of Dan Brown and Ken Follett, and its working title is The Rise of the Darkness.
"My aunt, who I completely adore, was an English teacher when she was younger," says Contreras Gomez. "She told me to just write, to write for fun, as a cool new hobby. In engineering you don't really write, especially creative writing. It's very theoretical, very concise and precise. So at first it was just a fun little hobby I had, then it started transforming into something bigger.
"It was inspired by museums. I'm an art nerd, so I love visiting museums. I went on a little Euro tour in 2019 to celebrate my sister's Masters graduation [from the University of Manchester]. We went to the British Museum, which I love, and the prologue of the book is set there. When I went there the plot just started flowing in my head. Then I went to the Prado in Lisbon, and it started flowing again. All the characters started coming together.
"But then I couldn't go on an adventure or even leave the house in 2020 - so the adventure came to my head. It's inspired by museums but also by travel, a lot of little histories - it's a current events book, but mythological and fictional. I was able to adapt what was happening in my world to what was happening in the characters' world."
Contreras Gomez's aunt and parents have given the book their seal of approval, and the next litmus test is her friends. Two of them have copies, and their response will determine whether Contreras Gomez approaches a publisher. In the meantime, she's enjoying writing for fun so much that she's already got under way with the sequel.
"For book two I have the first two chapters written and the next five in my head. I just need time to write it now!"
It's not surprising that time is harder to come by in 2022. Amidst all this, Contreras Gomez has managed to play a bit of tennis, and this year it's been taking off. She's certainly picked her spots to perform. Contreras Gomez is unbeaten in Grand Slam qualifying so far -- indeed, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open comprise her first three tour-level main draws. She partly ascribes her success at the majors to a risk she took in January that did not seem to pay off at the time, travelling to Australia but ultimately missing the qualifying cut.
"My coach, Christo van Rensburg, and I were debating what to do about Australia. I ended up going just because he wanted me to get the experience, even though I was five or six out. He wanted me to see what a Grand Slam was like, to experience the smells, the sights, the pressure, everything. He told me to go see this person play, go do that. So when I got to Roland Garros I didn't feel as overwhelmed. I felt like I'd been there before, even though I hadn't competed."
After sealing each main-draw place, Contreras Gomez did a lap of honour, the Mexican flag wrapped around her, leading fans in a chant of "ME - XI - CO! ME - XI - CO!". This celebration was slightly more successful in Paris and New York than Roehampton, though she laughs about the buttoned-up Wimbledon crowd's perplexed but polite response to her passion.
"Growing up in Mexico, I had the opportunity and the honour and the privilege of really learning about our culture and following our traditions," says Contreras Gomez. "I bleed green, white and red. The food, the society, the family, I love it."
Family is also at the root of her unique game style. Contreras Gomez is one of a handful of players keeping the one-handed backhand alive on the Hologic WTA Tour; she learned it from her grandfather Francisco Contreras Serrano, who competed at the Grand Slams in the 1950s and went on to captain the Mexican Davis Cup team, and her father Javier Contreras, a former ATP No.298 in 1984.
"I grew up watching my dad and my grandfather play, and they played old-school tennis with one-handed backhands, slices, serve-and-volley," says Contreras Gomez. "I actually never hit a two-handed backhand until I was in college, when I tried it for fun. I was teaching my team one-handers, they taught me a two-hander. But my two-handed backhand was quite horrible. I'm sticking with one.
"People doubted all the time, though. They would say I needed more power, I had to change my game style. But part of me kept believing. Because I'm quite slender, so I have to rely a lot on movement instead of power, but that hasn't deterred me."
When Contreras Gomez was a child, it wasn't tennis -- or engineering, or writing -- that she dreamed of. Her first ambition was to be an astronaut, before she learned about the side-effects of space on the human body. (Now, she laughs at the irony of choosing to be a professional athlete instead.) But staying on Earth hasn't limited her scope in life.
"I like gravity, and I like the ground," she says. "But there are so many opportunities. The world, Earth, is your oyster."