The distraction Serena Williams needs

Serena Williams returns to action this week in Bastad, Sweden, following her unexpected early departure at Wimbledon. It seems like red clay is in her blood ever since she won that career-enhancing second French Open title, or is it just that the American fashionista can’t wait any longer to get her feet into Bastad’s most famous product, a pair of Troentorps clogs?

Whatever the case, Serena playing Bastad is a little bit like one of those legendary gigs it is your destiny always to miss, like when Guns N’ Roses gets back together to play one night at some small dive in L.A. This is apt to be a big deal in the fun-loving seaside community of Bastad. Serena may be getting a big appearance check and scant competition (the second seed behind her is WTA No. 32 Simona Halep), but she’s got a good attitude. "I've never been to Sweden but I've heard it's a lovely country with a lot of tennis fans,” she said in a statement. “I'm really looking forward to come to the courts where Borg, Edberg and Wilander grew up.”

A goodwill tour is exactly what Serena needs, given how complicated her life became not long after she won her 16th Grand Slam title in Paris in early June. There was the controversy over the remarks she made about the Steubenville rape case, the cat-fight with the rival whom she dominates, Maria Sharapova, and that unexpected loss to Sabine Lisicki in the fourth round at Wimbledon. At least that last setback was a simple matter of forehands and backhands. The other two were not, and I found myself in greater sympathy with Serena than her critics or antagonists in both cases.

As far as the Steubenville rape case goes, the seeming lack of sympathy for the victim and concern for the juvenile perpetrators in the media and elsewhere was a real issue. In a long article in "Rolling Stone," Williams said, “I’m not blaming the girl, but if you’re a 16-year-old and you’re drunk like that, your parents should teach you: Don’t take drinks from other people. She’s 16, why was she that drunk where she doesn’t remember?”

Williams was expressing -- albeit awkwardly -- a position that many watchful parents and advocates of “tough love” take. It’s a call to be street smart, to be master of your own destiny as much as possible and to take responsibility for your own life and actions. And I can easily see either Richard Williams or Oracene Price sitting their girls down to read them the riot act about delinquent behavior.

Williams might have been emotionally tone-deaf looking at the incident that way, but it was mostly a case of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Her comment about what the unfortunate girl’s parents ought to have taught her (and perhaps did try to teach her) would make for a PSA that any radio or TV station would happily air.

Williams apologized for her comments, with heartfelt words. Among them: “It was not my intention to cause the victim and her family any additional pain. But I did, and I am sorry.” But the dust had not yet cleared from that painful episode when Maria Sharapova went nuclear on Williams. It was in response to some comments Williams made about Sharapova in the same "Rolling Stone" article. She called the Russian blonde “boring,” and referred to Grigor Dimitrov, Sharapova’s boyfriend, as a guy with a “black heart.” Could she have said that because Dimitrov and Williams had a dalliance some time ago and it did not end well?

Williams’ comments certainly smacked of sour grapes, but Sharapova’s response seemed disproportionate and ugly, potentially hurtful to people besides Williams. “If she wants to talk about something personal,” Sharapova said in a classic passive-aggressive moment, “maybe she should talk about her relationship and her boyfriend that was married and is getting a divorce and has kids."

The reference was to Patrick Mouratoglou, Williams’ coach and alleged paramour. Laying that out there in so icy a manner had to be humiliating for Mouratoglou’s family. And who even knows how Williams’ kin might feel about it? And if you think Sharapova was just trying to stand up for her man, Dimitrov, you can’t know much about men. It’s unlikely that Dimitrov, a 22-year-old stud muffin, spiraled into a deep depression after being called “black-hearted.” My guess is that he smiled and shrugged.

Of course, Serena set both these controversies rolling. She has no one to blame but herself, but I still think in both cases the punishment exceeded the crime. It couldn’t have helped her mental state at Wimbledon where, for one of the very few times in her life, she failed to muster the requisite aggression and opportunism on an important occasion during her fourth-round loss to Lisicki.

So right about now a dose of Swedish hospitality, some Swedish meatballs and herring with onion, and a nice pair of new clogs might help restore Serena’s spirits and prepare her for the long, hard-court slog coming up. Now that Sharapova has hired Jimmy Connors as her new coach, Williams will need to pay attention and bide her time to even a score that’s by no means settled.