Saturday January 7th, 2012

Roger Federer

Roger Federer pulled out of the Qatar Open due to back pain on Friday only 10 days before the start of the Australian Open. (Osama Faisal/AP)

We're not even a week into 2012 and already the players have formed a line out the door of the trainer's office, desperately trying to piece their bodies together before the first Grand Slam tournament of the season kicks off in about a week. While early-season injuries aren't a shock in and of themselves, what's particularly disconcerting this year is that we're seeing the biggest names and contenders pulling up lame with acute injuries or continuing to struggle with chronic ones.

Most of them should be fine for the Australian Open, which starts on Jan. 16, but that doesn't mean these injuries won't have lingering effects. In a sport with a negligible offseason, these top players will have spent much of their pre-tournament preparation resting, icing, compressing and elevating, rather than devoting time on the courts pushing their bodies to prepare for one of the most physically demanding events of the season.

Here's a rundown of the most notable current occupants of tennis' metaphorical infirmary. It's not pretty.

Roger Federer: The man who is riding a 20-match winning streak and has made a name for himself for seldom being injured withdrew from a tournament for only the second time in his career this week. Citing a back injury he sustained in his second-round match, Federer pulled out of Doha before his semifinal match against Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The world No. 3 said he was suffering from back spasms and taking pain killers, and hopes to be 100 percent next week.

"Although it's not very good, it's not crazy bad," Federer told reporters. "I have had bad backs in the past but this is not very good, otherwise I would definitely be playing. I have a long journey in front of me going to Australia, but I hope maybe midweek next week I should be a 100 percent again. But that's just guessing."

Serena Williams: Somewhat lost in all this hoopla questioning Williams' heart is the issue of her ankle. Williams went down hard while serving out her match against Bojana Jovanovski in the second round of Brisbane, rolling her left ankle and subsequently withdrawing from the tournament.

" I have been to the hospital and it has been confirmed that I have a left ankle sprain that I probably shouldn’t play on," Williams said in a statement released by the WTA. "I’m going to take a couple of days off -– not too many -– and see how I feel."

You can see the nasty ankle roll at the 2:25 mark here. Serena was finally able to take a flight to Melbourne on Friday.

Kim Clijsters: The defending Australian Open champion looked well on her way to grabbing the Brisbane title before she had to retire from her match against Daniela Hantuchova with a left hip injury. The good news is that the retirement seems precautionary and Clijsters says she'll be fine for Melbourne.

“If everything comes out OK, it should take a little [less than] a week to get completely healed," she said in Australia. "I felt my left hip was getting tighter and tighter to the point I couldn’t move forward with my upper body. The smartest choice was not to let it get any worse and try to be right for Melbourne.”

Maria Sharapova: Still dealing with the lingering effects of the sprained ankle she suffered in Tokyo last year, Sharapova withdrew from Brisbane and turned down a wild card to Hobart, choosing instead to keep training and working on her fitness before the Australian Open. That means the Russian will have no matches under her belt heading into the major and she'll need to play herself into form. Keep an eye on her draw.

Rafael Nadal: Nadal set off the alarms when he arrived in Abu Dhabi complaining of a sore left shoulder, inadequate practice and the introduction of a heavier racket. But despite his loss to David Ferrer in that tournament and his straight-set loss to Gael Monfils this week in Doha, Nadal seems to have shaken off any injury concerns. He played surprisingly well this week, particularly in his win over Mikhail Youzhny on Thursday. The shoulder may be a problem, but it hasn't progressed to a full-blown injury. Yet.

Andy Murray: There isn't a body part that Murray hasn't grabbed at this week in Brisbane, but the Scot has played through any niggles to come closer to finding his form as the week progressed. Murray hasn't revealed any specific injuries that have contributed to his slow and lumbering play, so other than his hair (which is a bit out of control), he doesn't seem to be suffering from anything an ice bath can't fix.

Sabine Lisicki: The injury-prone Wimbledon semifinalist retired from her quarterfinal match in Auckland because of an abdominal injury. "I knew if I pushed it too much, it will take two weeks to recover," the German said afterward. "I knew when to stop. It was painful and I didn't want to go over the edge." Her Fed Cup teammate Julia Goerges hasn't fared so well either. She's been ill throughout her stint in New Zealand.

Venus Williams: Playing a number of exhibitions during the winter was a positive sign that Venus was successfully fighting off the ill effects of her recent Sjogren's syndrome diagnosis. But then she withdrew from Auckland, and though she has yet to officially withdraw from Melbourne, at this point it would be a shock if she were able to compete there. The Rest: Marin Cilic, still recovering from a knee injury, officially withdrew from the Australian Open on Friday, joining a long list of players (Fernando Gonzalez, Tommy Robredo, James Blake, Robin Soderling) who won't be able to compete in Melbourne. Meanwhile, Tommy Haas (calf), Alex Bogomolov (right ankle), Florian Mayer (groin), Somdev Devvarman (shoulder) and Juan Monaco (wrist) have all withdrawn from tournaments with injury.

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