PRAGUE (Reuters) - Maria Sharapova is happy to cast herself as the underdog in her first Fed Cup final appearance when Russia seeks to take the trophy from holders Czech Republic this weekend.
The Russian team, led by the world number four, is looking to prevent the Czechs from claiming a fourth title in five years, a feat last accomplished by Russia in 2004-08.
“We are coming into this final as the underdogs,” said Sharapova when asked about playing in Prague, where the Czech team anchored by Petra Kvitova and Lucie Safarova won the title a year ago.
“We expect a stadium full of Czechs. I’m sure there will be some Russian flags flying around,” added the winner of five grand slam events.
“As we are the underdogs, our full concentration will be on the opponent ahead of us and the matches ahead of us and not so much about what is going on around us,” she said.
The teams last met in the final in 2011 when the Czech Republic defeated Russia in Moscow to lift the Fed Cup trophy for the first time since 1988 when it was still part of communist Czechoslovakia.
The Czechs repeated as champions in 2012, while in 2013 Italy defeated Russia in the final.
Russia earned a finals berth after Elena Vesnina and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova triumphed in the decisive doubles match against Germany in the semi-finals. Sharapova and Ekaterina Makarova, who both missed the last round, will join the team against the Czechs.
“We have a great team. All the girls are playing really good,” captain Anastasia Myskina said.
Hobbled by injury, Sharapova played her first matches since July at the WTA finals in Singapore last month and was beaten in the semi-finals by world number six Kvitova. She has also lost in 2015 to Safarova, who cracked the top 10 this year.
Sharapova said playing against them again was a great way to finish the year.
“It will be a great opportunity and great challenge,” she said. “It is definitely a very new experience (in the finals)... I hope we as a team can have a good weekend.”
Reporting by Jason Hovet, editing by Alan Baldwin