Sharapova key to Russian Fed Cup hopes

Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova is expected to be the big factor in her country's hopes of winning this weekend's Federation Cup against holders the Czech Republic.

The world number four will in all likelihood face sixth-ranked Petra Kvitova and ninth-ranked Lucie Safarova. The two players have been part of the Czech team that has won the last three Fed Cup titles in four years.

"It's a great way to finish off the year playing with two of the best players," said Sharapova.

"It's definitely a very new experience, I've been part of the team on different occasions but never in the final."

Having been out of action for nearly three months with injury, Sharapova returned to action at the WTA Tour Finals last month, losing to Kvitova in the semi-finals and in June at the French Open she lost against Safarova.

"I know how difficult an opponent they are and it will be a great challenge for me," said Sharapova, who is part of the Russian team that comprises 23rd-ranked Ekaterina Makarova, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (28) and Elena Vesnina (111).

"We are coming into these finals as the underdogs," she added.

Russian captain Anastasia Myskina thanked Sharapova for making herself available for  Fed Cup action.

"Definitely it's very important to have Maria on the team and I want to say thank you," said Myskina.

Meanwhile, Czech captain Petr Pala said that they were not the odds-on favourites to win the Fed Cup.

"They have the highest-ranking player and a permanent doubles pair," said Pala of Vesnina and Makarova.

"The chances are perfectly even."