It is March 20, 1997, and Venus Williams, a 16-year-old newcomer to the professional tennis tour, is playing at the Lipton Championships in Key Biscayne for the first time. Her beaded braids fly with every serve and powerful groundstroke as she takes a 6-1 lead over an older American player named Ginger Helgeson-Nielsen.
That’s when the shrieking began from the stands. A rat was running loose, creating a commotion. The match was suspended 15 minutes while the rodent was caught and removed. Williams, who was ranked No. 110 at the time, went on to win 6-1, 4-6, 6-3 and then beat 23rd-ranked Jennifer Capriati before losing to No. 1 Martina Hingis in straight sets.
She took home a paycheck of $6,750.
Eighteen years and $30 million later, there Williams was again, a few months shy of her 35th birthday, winning her 57th match on these now oh-so-familiar Key Biscayne tournament grounds.
She beat Caroline Wozniacki 6-3, 7-6 (7-1) Monday afternoon to advance to the Miami Open quarterfinals, where she will face 12th-seeded Carla Suarez-Navarro of Spain, who rallied to beat Agnieszka Radwanska 5-7, 6-0, 6-4.
Williams is two wins away from a potential final against her kid sister, 33-year-old top-ranked Serena, who beat Svetlana Kuznetsova 6-2, 6-3 on Monday.
As the younger Williams wrapped up her match on Stadium Court, the elder Venus was in an interview room, reminiscing about that rat-infested day of 1997.
“At that age I was so young and didn’t know much,” Williams said, smiling. “I think I was playing Ginger Helgeson-Nieslen. I played Capriati in the second round. It was a long match. Hingis at that time was so much better than I was. I had a lot of potential, but I needed some more experience.
“She definitely, definitely dominated that match, but it was a good experience I learned from.”
Over the past 18 years, Williams has reached No. 1 and won 46 titles, including five Wimbledons and two U.S. Opens.
Williams’ ranking took a major dive from No. 5 to No. 103 in 2011 when she was off seven months after being diagnosed with Sjogren’s Syndrome, an auto-immune disease.
She began 2014 ranked No. 47, and many fans and experts figured she would not return to the top 10. Now, she is within striking distance at No. 16. She has won seven of her past eight matches against top-10 players.
On Monday, she said she played aggressively and freely, “similar to how young V would have played: either knocking a winner or knocking an error. It’s fun to just hit out, though. It feels good.”
Her style led to 37 unforced errors, but also produced 40 winners, compared with just nine for Wozniacki.
Among those marveling at Williams’ longevity was fellow American Sloane Stephens, a 22-year-old from Plantation who reached the quarterfinals with a 6-4, 7-6 (7-5) win over Belinda Bencic.
“She is a super human,” Stephens said of Williams. “She’s unbelievable. If I’m 35 playing tennis, I don’t know how I’m going to function. But she actually is an unbelievable athlete. I don’t know how she does it.”
Despite her age, Williams said she never gets bored with tennis.
“Tennis is definitely not pushing paper,’’ she said. “When you get out there you have no idea what’s going to happen in the point. … You have to improvise every single time. That never gets boring.
“You have to work very hard and be very focused, but it’s all worth it when you get to the tournament. That excitement level comes up, and I love it.”
ESPN commentator Brad Gilbert said of Williams: “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, about how good Venus is playing at almost 35. I’m just blown away at how good — I was watching her [Monday] morning, how good she’s still moving. I’m saying she’s probably moving in the top five of any person that’s playing tennis, and what she’s been through and her age, it’s just incredible to see.”
Asked if she might follow Serena and end her boycott of the tournament at Indian Wells, California, Venus remained noncommittal, citing schedule issues.
“It was wonderful to see [Serena’s] reception there,” she said. “I think what Serena did was awesome for me to see as a big sister because I feel like usually I’m the big sister.
“I feel like in this instance, she took the role of big sister. It was really nice. I love how we continue to protect each other no matter what.”
In other key matches Monday: Andrea Petkovic and Karolina Pliskova advanced to the quarters. American John Isner served 15 aces, including a 142-mph bullet on match point, to beat ninth-seed Grigor Dmitrov 7-6 (7-2), 6-2.
Top-ranked Novak Djokovic got past Steve Darcis 6-0, 7-5. Milos Raonic had 20 aces in a 6-1, 5-7, 7-6 (7-3) win over Jeremy Chardy. And No. 4 Kei Nishikori cruised past Viktor Troicki 6-2, 6-2.