PARIS (AFP) – Maria Sharapova leads Russia in their Fed Cup World Group opener against Poland this weekend looking to take a step closer to the 2016 Olympics.
It will be the first meeting between the two countries and a rare Fed Cup appearance by 2012 Olympic silver medallist Sharapova, who must compete in the women’s team event if she wants to bid for gold in Rio next year.
The Russian star, runner-up to Serena Williams at the Australian Open last Saturday, has played just three ties for Russia since her 2008 debut and has a 3-1 singles record.
Champions the Czech Republic open their defence against Canada in Quebec City, as 2014 runners-up Germany host Australia in Stuttgart and France travel to play Italy, last year’s semi-finalists, in Genoa.
The hardcourt clash on Saturday and Sunday at Krakow Arena will see 27-year-old Sharapova return to Fed Cup for the first time since February 2012.
Attention will also be focussed on her new team captain Anastasia Myskina, who a decade ago threatened to pull out of the Russian team if Sharapova was selected.
Myskina, the first Russian woman to win a Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2004, the year she spearheaded their first Fed Cup victory, retired as a player in 2007 and took over the Fed Cup captaincy in 2014.
Russia are favourites with world number two Sharapova joined by 27th-ranked Sveltana Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam winner, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (34), and Vitalia Diatchenko (82).
World Group newcomers Poland will be led by former Wimbledon finalist Agnieszka Radwanska, ranked eighth, after her run to the fourth round of the Australian Open, alongside her younger sister Urszula, ranked 135.
Alicja Rosolska and Klaudia Jans-Ignacik will be on doubles duty for Poland.
In Quebec City, the Czech holders are favourites having won all five of their previous meetings with the Canadians, despite being without top players Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova.
World number 20 Karolina Pliskova, 68th-ranked Tereza Smitkova, 107th-ranked Denisa Allertova and doubles specialist Lucie Hradecka, will line out in the first meeting between the two sides since 2002.
“I think the team that’s going to Canada is good enough to succeed,” said Czech team captain Petr Pala, whose side have won three of the last four titles.
Canada, whose best result was a semi-final in 1988, will be without world number seven Eugenie Bouchard.
In Stuttgart, Australia face Germany for the third time in four years.
Germany won last year’s semi-final in Brisbane, but Australia’s Samantha Stosur believes their chances are improved with three players ranked inside the top 60.
“I don’t think we’ve had a team this solid on the rankings for quite a while,” 25th-ranked Stosur said.
Stosur will be joined by 35th-ranked Casey Dellacqua, Jarmila Gajdosova (54) and Olivia Rogowksa (157).
Seven-time winners Australia have not lifted the trophy since 1974, but are boosted by winning in Stuttgart in 2012 to secure their return to the competition’s top tier.
Germany have a strong side with world number 10 Angelique Kerber, Andrea Petkovic (12), Sabine Lisicki (28) and Julia Goerges (69).
France captain Amelie Mauresmo also arrives from Melbourne and her coaching role with Australian Open men’s runner-up Andy Murray.
Mauresmo will be counting on Alize Cornet (19), Caroline Garcia (36), Kristina Mladenovic (71) and Pauline Parmentier (86) for their claycourt tie in Italy.
Italy, winners of four titles in the last decade, are without top ranked Flavia Pennetta, but their team includes Sara Errani 14th, Camilia Giorgi (31), Roberta Vinci (40) and Karin Knapp (53).
World Group II also has a smattering of stardust with both Serena and Venus Williams appearing for the United States against Argentina in Buenos Aires.