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Sharapova mending fences for Beijing

Sharapova insists that despite her accent, upbringing and lifestyle, which is more St Petersburg, Florida than St Petersburg, Russia, there are no personal issues.

sports Updated: Jan 31, 2008 18:09 IST

Maria Sharapova is in the Middle East working on her own peace process hoping it will pave the way to Olympic gold in Beijing in August.

The Russian golden girl, the world's richest sportswoman, is spearheading her country's defence of its Fed Cup title which gets its first examination against Israel this weekend.

There is plenty at stake.

Sharapova, fresh from her first Australian Open title and third career Grand Slam crown, has never represented her country before but needs to demonstrate her commitment to the Fed Cup if she is to play in the Olympics.

Furthermore, her collection of blue chip sponsors desperately need to see their investment reap maximum rewards when the world's biggest sports event dominates for three weeks in China in August.

Sharapova knows too she needs to repair relationships with her teammates, many of whom have criticised her in the past for pulling out of the squad after being selected.

The 20-year-old insists that despite her accent, upbringing and lifestyle, which is more St Petersburg, Florida than St Petersburg, Russia, there are no personal issues in the Russian camp.

"The majority of us have a wonderful relationship. We do," said Sharapova who irked Svetlana Kuznetsova and Anna Chakvetadze when she was invited to cheer the team on from the sidelines in the 2007 Fed Cup final win over Italy in Moscow.

"I don't know what you saw, but we all went to team dinners. I have really good relationships. I couldn't play in the final but the captain asked me to come and support them, and that's the least I could do," said Sharapova.

Russia captain Shamil Tarpishchev has played the part of mediator between Sharapova and Kuznetsova, who is absent this weekend, and Chakvetadze, who will be playing.

"There is not a single personal conflict inside the team," he insists.

In the absence of Kuznetsova, Elena Dementieva and Nadia Petrova, who have also struggled to see eye-to-eye with their illustrious compatriot, Sharapova will be joined in Israel by Chakvetade, Elena Vesnina and Dinara Safina.

"I have my fingers crossed this will be the first time after a Grand Slam that I don't get sick or injured," said Sharapova after her Australian Open victory last weekend.

"I'm very excited to be playing in the Fed Cup. Tennis is such an individual sport and this is a great opportunity to be part of a team.

"I'm happy I was asked to play for my country. This was one of my priorities at the beginning of the year."

Sharapova, famously taken by father Yuri to Florida when she was seven with just 700 dollars to their name, has always insisted she is proud of her Russian heritage.

"If I didn't have the career, I'd probably be back home in Russia in college right now, like one of my friends that I grew up with back there," she said.

Tarpishchev, meanwhile, said he was pleased with what he saw of Sharapova in Australia and was expecting another impressive performance in Israel.

"Maria looked in command throughout the tournament due to her strong mentality," he said.

"I hope she will manage to keep her good form for the matches in Israel."