Maria Sharapova attempts to remain on course for the Rio Olympics when Russia take on the Netherlands in the Fed Cup this weekend even if she courts controversy by not actually playing.
The world’s richest sportswoman has been named in the four-woman Russian squad for the World Group clash in Moscow despite insisting that she is unable to play due to a forearm injury suffered in her Australian Open quarter-final loss to Serena Williams.
Under qualification rules, a player must be nominated three times in an Olympic cycle in order to be eligible for the Games in Rio in August.
So far, the 28-year-old star has featured in just two ties since 2012, the year when she won the silver medal at the London Olympics.
Sharapova was warned last week by Russian tennis chief Shamil Tarpishchev that she risked missing out on Rio if she failed to turn out for the Fed Cup tie.
But she was adamant she was unlikely to compete in Moscow to rest her injured arm.
“I’m going to go to Moscow, to be part of the team but I don’t think I’ll be playing,” she said.
Sharapova was as good as her word as she was pictured on social media on Thursday at the Fed Cup dinner in Moscow along with teammates Svetlana Kuznetsova, Ekaterina Makarova, teenager Darya Kasatkina and team captain Anastasia Myskina.
The International Tennis Federation (ITF), which oversees the Fed Cup, said that Sharapova did not necessarily need to play the tie in order to fulfil her Olympic criteria.
“The Olympic tennis event qualification regulations require a player to be in the nominated Fed Cup team at the time of the draw on three occasions,” a spokesman told AFP on the eve of the draw for the tie.
“A player does not need to play a match.”
Sharapova won all four Fed Cup rubbers she played in 2015 including the two singles matches in the final which Russia lost 3-2 to the Czech Republic.
Russia have defeated the Dutch on all three occasions they have met.
The visitors’ task will not get any easier on Saturday and Sunday as their top-ranked player is Kiki Bertens at a lowly 106 in the world.
The Czechs, who have won four of the last five Fed Cups, start their defence against Romania in Cluj with former double Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova (world number nine) and Karolina Pliskova (13) leading their assault.
Romania’s top singles player Simona Halep, the world number three, has postponed a nose operation to play in the tie.
Italy, the champions in 2006, 2009, 2010 and 2013, go to Marseille to face five-time winners France.
Newly-crowned Australian Open champion Angelique Kerber, at a high of two in the world, leads Germany’s challenge at home to Switzerland in Leipzig.
Teenager Belinda Bencic, the world number 11, is Switzerland’s top player while veteran Martina Hingis will feature in the doubles.
Hingis, 35, returned to the Fed Cup last year for the first time since 1998 in order to qualify for the Olympics.