Sharapova eyes first Fed Cup final against Czechs
PRAGUE (AP) Seven years after she helped Russia win its last Fed Cup title, Maria Sharapova finally gets to play in a final this weekend.
Her rare presence in the team is a boost for Russia's hopes of taking the cup from the defending champion Czech Republic on an indoor hard-court at Prague's O2 Arena.
''It's definitely a very new experience,'' Sharapova said on Wednesday. ''I've been part of the team on different occasions but never in the final.
''Having me as part of the team is really exciting, and I hope we can have a good weekend.''
All four of her previous Fed Cup ties were in the first round, and all wins.
In 2008, she missed the triumphant final in Spain because of a right shoulder injury.
In 2011, she wasn't available for the home final loss to the Czechs because of a left ankle injury.
In 2012, Russia didn't pick her for the semifinals loss to Serbia because she was too busy.
This year, keen to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, she contributed two wins in the first-round defeat of Poland, and missed the semifinal win over Germany because of a leg injury.
Injury almost kept her out of this week's final.
The fourth-ranked Sharapova was sidelined with a leg injury after losing in the Wimbledon semifinals. At her first tournament back, the Wuhan Open in China last month, she retired in her first match with a left wrist injury. At the WTA Finals in Singapore, she reached the semifinals.
''It was just really great for me to be playing competitive matches again,'' Sharapova said of the WTA Finals. ''I didn't know how my body would hold up, and it was a really great week to have three victories there and have another chance to maybe play two more matches here.
''Everything I have played after the injuries has been a bonus for my tennis, to see where my health is.''
To help captain Anastasia Myskina become the fourth woman to win the Fed Cup as a player and captain - she played in the 2004 and '05 triumphs - Sharapova will have to overcome opponents who have become as dominant in the Fed Cup as Russia once was.
The Czechs claimed their third Fed Cup title in four years last November by beating Germany in the final in Prague, and have all their major stars available, led by top-10 players Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova.
With Kvitova and Safarova, the Czechs won their first title as an independent nation, following the 1993 split of Czechoslovakia, in 2011 by beating Russia in Moscow, and retained the trophy in Prague the following year.
Sharapova has positive win-loss records against both; 6-4 vs. the sixth-ranked Kvitova, and 4-2 vs. the ninth-ranked Safarova. However, she has lost to both Czechs this year.
''I know how difficult opponents they are, it will be a great challenge for me,'' Sharapova said. ''Both meetings, I have lost in quite tough matches.''
She was beaten by eventual finalist Safarova 7-6 (3), 6-4 in the round of 16 at the French Open, while Kvitova defeated her 6-3, 7-6 (3) in the WTA Finals.
''It's always tough to play her,'' Safarova said. ''You need to be aggressive to succeed.''
The Czechs also have on board Karolina Pliskova and Barbora Strycova, while Russia is counting on Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova, Ekaterina Makarova, and doubles specialist Elena Vesnina.