The fan experience at the BNP Paribas Open has become richer and richer over the years. Nestled in the iconic Coachella Valley, with the layered contours of the San Jacinto Mountains lingering in the distance, fans pack the newly renovated bleachers that surround the practice courts and revel in the sun-kissed, endless summer that prevails around the grounds.
There is one fan, in particular, that has taken the experience to the next level.
Enter LaWanda Watts, BNP Paribas Open superfan and Twitter aficionado – she’s a fan that has fans!
Watts’ rise to the top of the tennis Twitter pantheon started innocently enough: when she was young Arthur Ashe paid a visit to her school, and her love affair with tennis was sparked. It’s a romance that has stood the test of time.
Watts originally dipped her toes into the world of professional tennis at the Los Angeles Open, an ATP event that was played at UCLA, and eventually graduated to Indian Wells, where she has grown her game right along with the tournament.
“When I first started coming here I would come for a few days and then I’d go home and say ‘I want to be back there.’” Watts tells us. “Then I said ‘I just have to come the whole time.’ That’s when I started buying my series seat, I’ve had that for 15 seasons now, the same seat.”
A regular every season at the BNP Paribas Open for more than a decade and a half, and active on Twitter since 2010 – her handle is @lawanda50 – Watts has been living the dream in Tennis Paradise.
— LaWanda (@lawanda50) March 17, 2022
Her Twitter feed is a veritable who’s who of tennis. Grigor Dimitrov. Check. Paula Badosa. Check. Stefanos Tsitsipas. Sebastian Korda. Martina Navratilova. Ons Jabeur. Madison Keys. All in the last ten days, and the list goes on and on – Watts estimates that she has about 300 selfies, overall.
As a Twitter OG, Watts’ profile has become more recognizable and celebrated over the years. But recently she has experienced a strange phenomenon: suddenly players are seeking out selfies with her, and fans are coming up to her and asking for photos.
— Coco Gauff (@CocoGauff) March 15, 2022
“I got my picture with the legend,” Coco Gauff tweeted on Tuesday, captioning a photo of her and LaWanda flashing peace signs and sporting ear-to-ear grins, palm trees and smiling fans in the background.
The way players – and fans – have embraced Watts is a testament to her genuine enthusiasm for the sport and her inclusive positivity. You can’t miss that she loves the sport in a very pure way.
“I just feel really special,” Watts tells me as we chat on a picture perfect Friday morning, the grounds just starting to buzz a bit ahead of Friday’s men’s quarterfinal and women’s semifinal action. “I don’t even understand why anyone would want to take photos with me. Fans, they want to take photos with me, and it’s like ‘Oh, wow, this is crazy! It’s just insane.
“And the players now are coming up and asking me for photos, that was wild that Coco asked me – oh, man she’s a legend, it just made me feel so special.”
Watts says that she doesn’t have any of her selfies framed at home, but adds that the epic snap she took with 18-year-old Gauff might be the perfect place to start.
“They are on my Instagram so I could always take them off and frame them,” she says. “I might frame this photo I took with Coco this year. It’s one of my best photos. It makes me look young. I’m with an 18-year-old, and I look younger just being in the photo with her, we look so happy, it was just great.”
There is one selfie that Watts still has not managed to procure, however. A longtime Rafael Nadal fan, the L.A. native says, with a tinge of regret, that she just hasn’t had good luck in that regard.
“I’m missing only Rafa, I think I have everyone else,” she says, explaining just how tough it is to get face time with the 21-major champion: “It’s too crazy, I’m short. I’m like with the kids, up against the fence – I just can’t do it. I don’t know if it will happen.”
Good things come to those who wait, and Watts seemed hopeful that this Friday could be her day. Nadal was scheduled for practice at 12:00. It was 1030 A.M. – she was already ready, hopeful.
“I’m going to stay optimistic,” she says.