Sharapova making rare Fed Cup appearance


PARIS – Maria Sharapova hopes her first Fed Cup outing in three years will help erase the misery of her latest Grand Slam blow-out. The three-time major winner, and former world number one who has struggled to rediscover her best form since a 2008 shoulder injury, suffered a tame fourth round defeat at the Australian Open.
Her straight sets defeat to Germany’s Andrea Petkovic in the heat of Melbourne has now given way to the chilly streets of Moscow where Russia open their 2011 Fed Cup World Group campaign against France on Saturday. “Cold, cold, cold,” wrote Sharapova on her Facebook page. “Just spent the last week in Munich training and now I am off to Moscow for Fed Cup. I am looking forward to getting on the court and competing, did not like that feeling I had walking off the court last time I played.” Sharapova, who will share singles duties with Svetlana Kuznetsova, is making her first Fed Cup appearance since 2008. France have been hit by the absence of their top two, Marion Bartoli and Aravane Rezai, leaving Alize Cornet as the team’s leading player. Four-time champions Russia have won the most recent two ties between the nations, but France triumphed on their last visit to Moscow’s Olympic Stadium in 2003.
Australia, with a challenge spearheaded by world number five Samantha Stosur, aim to celebrate their return to the World Group after a six-year absence, by stunning champions Italy. But Stosur and teammates Jarmila Groth, Anastasia Rodionova and Rennae Stubbs, will have their work cut out against an Italian team who have won the title three times in the last five years. Italy, with French Open champion Francesca Schiavone linking up again in singles with the world number 16 Flavia Pennetta, have won seven of their last eight away ties.
That record included the 2010 final against the USA in San Diego. “I have always enjoyed the Fed Cup and playing at home is always extra special,” said Stosur, ahead of the two-day tie in Hobart. Australian Open champion Kim Clijsters leads Belgium against the USA in Antwerp in a tie stripped of other Grand Slam talent. Compatriot Justine Henin has retired for a second time while Serena and Venus Williams, both injured, do not figure in the American squad.
But the USA have reached the Fed Cup final for the last two years, losing on both occasions to Italy, without the services of either Williams sister. American captain Mary Joe Fernandez puts the success of her squad down to team spirit. “Everybody can pretty much do it all,” said Fernandez. “This was a very young team a couple of years ago and they have come a long way.”
Bethanie Mattek-Sands and Melanie Oudin are likely to be the singles choices while Clijsters will share duties with world 26, Yanina Wickmayer. The weekend’s other World Group I tie sees Slovakia face Czech Republic in Bratislava with the visitors boasting a 3-0 career record over their neighbours.