MOSCOW - Russia's hopes of winning a place in the Fed Cup final suffered a setback as world number two Maria Sharapova dropped out through injury just days ahead of the semi-final with Germany.
Before Sharapova's withdrawal, Russia looked favourites to win the semi-final as she has been joined by 25th-ranked Svetlana Kuznetsova, a two-time Grand Slam winner, Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (38th), and Elena Vesnina (71st).
The 29-year-old Kuznetsova, three-time Fed Cup champion, has a chance to become Russia's most successful player in Fed Cup history if she wins just one more rubber.
"I enjoy so much playing in the Fed Cup," Kuznetsova, who is currently level with Elena Likhovtseva and Elena Makarova on 26 wins, said.
"It comes from my heart to play for my country. It's just a huge pleasure to play it." Russian team skipper Anastasia Myskina, the country's first woman to win a Grand Slam at Roland Garros in 2004, the year she spearheaded their first Fed Cup victory, named former world mumber two Vera Zvonareva,as a replacement for Sharapova.
Zvonareva, who is currently tanked 137th in the world, will make her first Fed Cup appearance since 2011.
Myskina, who retired as a player in 2007 and took over the Fed Cup captaincy in 2014, said she believed that despite the absence of the 2012 Olympic runner-up Sharapova her team remained strong and competitive.
"We have a magnificent squad," Myskina told a news conference on Wednesday.
"The players that form our team are all significant persons in the world of tennis. Many of them have won Grand Slam titles and other major events." The semi-final on the red claycourts of Adler Arena in the 2014 Winter Games host city Sochi will be the two nations' fifth Fed Cup meeting.
Four-time champions Russia hold a 3-1 lead in their head-to-head record but Germany, two-time Fed Cup winners in 1987 and 1992, won 3-2 in their last meeting in the 2002 World Group first round.
Germany's team skipper Barbara Rittner has formed a well-balanced team, calling on three of the world's top 20 players: Andrea Petkovic, Sabine Lisicki and Angelique Kerber, along with Julia Goerges, who is climbing up the rankings again after a loss of form in 2014 which saw her drop out of the top 100.
The recent success of Kerber, who won the Charleston WTA tournament in South Carolina after beating her Fed Cup team-mate Petkovic in the semi-final, left German supporters optimistic ahead of the semi-final.
But the news of Sharapova's withdrawal has been no cause for celebration in the German camp.
"It's still an away match on the sand and a difficult task, but one thing is certain - we will do everything to take our chance," Rittner told SID, an AFP subsidiary.
"I have all my options available and four very good players, I want to see how everyone feels over the next few days.
"We had, of course, based our preparations on facing Sharapova." The Czech Republic and France will meet in the other semi-final in Ostrava.