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Beyond the Baseline

Friday Five: Sharapova, Isner among many racing to heal for Aussie Open

Maria Sharapova Maria Sharapova is on the mend and already practicing in Melbourne. (Tertius Pickard/AP)

The dawn of a new tennis season is always filled with hope, anticipation and possibility. We can't help ourselves. It's like we completely forget about how we complained a mere two months about the length of the tennis season and how much we longed for a break. Nope, things are new, we're happy, and we're ready to go.

Until players start dropping like flies due to injury and we're left wondering why we got all that excited in the first place. Andrea Petkovic is the sobering reminder of that fact. Her run of bad luck continued when she tore the meniscus in her right knee in her first match of the season. Much like Rafael Nadal, Petkovic's injury is too serious to allow her to compete this month, and she's already returned home to Germany for surgery and rehab.

Those catastrophic injuries may grab the headlines, but tennis is as much a sport of niggles. Major injuries knock you off tour, which in a sick way can be a blessing. It gives players time to actually commit to their fitness and get better, as opposed to simply managing their bodies so things don't get worse. But those less-than-major aches and pains? It's like being in purgatory. Being in competition doesn't afford anyone the luxury of being at 100 percent for long stretches of time.

The Australian Open is a mere 10 days away, and while some players can't wait to strike their first ball of the 2013 slam season, a small handfull of others probably wouldn't mind a longer break. The worst luck you can have is to suffer an injury at the start of the season, a time when the conditions are at their toughest, the courts unforgiving and no meaningful break in sight to give your body extended rest.

Here are five players whose early injury woes could spell doom to their Australian Open chances.

Jo-Wilfried Tsonga: Tsonga chose to begin his year in Perth, representing France at Hopman Cup, and it looked to be a confidence building week. He went 3-0 in singles, beating Kevin Anderson, Fernando Verdasco and John Isner. Unfortunately, Tsonga didn't leave the tournament unscathed. He picked up a hamstring injury in his final match against Anderson, retired from mixed doubles and subsequently withdrew from next week's tournament in Sydney.

Tsonga was slated to be the top seed in Sydney, but his decision to withdraw was a smart one. He already has three matches under his belt, and if he wants more he may be able to join the field in Kooyong, where the tournament director is still trying to complete the field. That is of course assuming that a few days' rest can get him back to 100 percent. An Australian Open finalist in 2008, Tsonga knows he can play well in Melbourne. His new partnership with Roger Rasheed could instill within him the discipline he lacked last year.

Victoria Azarenka: I'm guessing more than a few of you received a bit of an education about women's grooming habits when you woke up to learn Azarenka withdrew from Brisbane in advance of her showdown with Serena Williams due to a bad pedicure. Look, guys, it happens.

Yes, Azarenka had a toe infection stemming from a bad pedicure she received 10 days ago. Azarenka tried to play through the pain -- and she succeeded, winning two matches while dropping a mere seven games. She finally opted to undergo a procedure to fix the problem. The cynics have been rolling their eyes for the past 12 hours, and I admit, the optics aren't great. Azarenka has a history of "strategic withdrawals," and some are arguing she's ducking Serena, a player against whom she is 1-11. I've been skeptical of Azarenka's injury woes in the past. I'm not this time.

Azarenka said she won't be able to practice for a couple of days while her foot heals. If all goes well, she should be back on the practice courts at Melbourne Park early next week to finish her preparation. Maybe this is just a minor blip, and we'll forget it ever happened in three weeks. But given the record-setting temperatures being reported in Melbourne as of late, those courts are going to be brutal when play begins. Not the best conditions for an already compromised foot.

Maria Sharapova: What exactly is a collarbone injury? Whatever it is it was enough to keep Sharapova out of Brisbane but not serious enough to keep her off the courts, as she was spotted days later practicing on Rod Laver Arena in Melbourne. It's unclear how serious it is and whether it will have lingering affects once play begins. I suspect it won't. Sharapova will have had enough time to get the treatment she needs.

There's no doubt the injury affected her preseason preparation. She'll go into the Australian Open with zero match play and must hope for a kind draw that gives her a two or three easy early matches so she can find her form. That's leaving an awful lot up to chance. It worked out well for Sharapova last year, where an ankle injury ruled her out of any warm-up events and she ended up making the final. Then again, it's entirely possible she could draw Sabine Lisicki in the first round, a player who bounced her from the fourth round of Wimbledon last year.

John Isner: We don't know much about the severity of the knee injury that forced Isner to withdraw from Hopman Cup, but the dreaded "T" word did come up. "I don't necessarily know if it's tendinitis," Isner said. "It's sore and it's caused me a little bit of trouble and from that I'm not able to really load the right way and I'm not really going for my shots like I should."

For now Isner is still on the player list for Sydney, which begins Sunday. It's hard not to wonder whether it would be better for him to skip the tournament. When it comes to the Slams, Isner needs his body to be in tip-top shape. He hasn't played a straight set best-of-five match since the French Open last year, and he's now on a streak of four straight Slams that ended with five-set losses. His reason to play Sydney likely stems from the simple desire to get a win under his belt. Counting his two losses this week at Hopman Cup, Isner hasn't won back-to-back matches since the U.S. Open.

Sabine Lisicki: Lisicki's horrible post-Wimbledon stretch led to a rankings tumble that means she'll be unseeded at the Australian Open, earning her the distinction of being the most dangerous floater in the draw. This is especially true in light of how tough Lisicki played Azarenka this week in Brisbane. The 6-3, 6-3 scoreline was deceiving.

Set to play qualifiers in Sydney this week, the surprisingly fragile German withdrew citing a viral illness. One thing that Rafael Nadal's recent injury/illness troubles reminds us of is that the negative affect of those maladies doesn't stop just because a person heals. Illnesses in particular can interrupt training blocks and leave a player less prepared than they would have been had they not been sick. So it goes with Lisicki, who has the talent to beat almost anyone on any given day and has proven herself capable of deep runs at the Slams.

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