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Russian stay-aways threaten to make Fed Cup final a romp

By Martyn Herman

LONDON (Reuters) - Irina Khromacheva took to Twitter to express her delight at being in Russia's team to face Italy in the Fed Cup final this weekend, although with a world ranking of 236 she probably expected to be watching it on television.

"Very happy to play my first match at Fedcup tomorrow, will give my all. Let's go Russia," said the 18-year-old.

Khromacheva will share the singles responsibilities with Alexandra Panova, ranked 136 in the world, against the red-hot Italian favorites featuring 13th-ranked Roberta Vinci and world number seven Sara Errani.

It has all the makings of a rout in Cagliari, Sardinia after three of Russia's top players, with the exception of the injured Maria Sharapova, opted to play in the WTA's Tournament of Champions in Bulgaria.

Eleven Russian women are ranked higher than Panova whose grand slam record amounts to five first-round losses while Khromacheva plays almost entirely on the second-tier ITF circuit rather than the main Tour.

How different this weekend's clash, the 50th Fed Cup final, could have looked had 18th ranked Maria Kirilenko, Elena Vesnina (25) and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova (26) opted to represent their country rather than play in a tournament which offers a lucrative end to the season for players who failed to qualify for the WTA Tour Finals in Istanbul last week.

Russia have only lost once in six meetings against Italy but without that trio and the likes of Svetlana Kuznetsova and Nadia Petrova, both of whom have called time on their Fed Cup careers, Russia stand little chance against the Italians who are looking to win it for the fourth time.

It begs the question as to how the women's tour organizers the WTA and International Tennis Federation (ITF), who run the Fed Cup, Davis Cup and grand slams, could schedule both events for the same week.

In an interview with the BBC, Vesnina defended her decision not to take part in the Fed Cup final.

"I've been playing Fed Cup for eight years and I have won the Fed Cup twice, so I already know that feeling," Vesnina, who played a leading role in getting Russia to the final, said.

"It means a lot to me to play for my country and I have always done that with pleasure. But I have qualified for the first time in my career for this Championship and I have a chance to end the year in the top 20."

The WTA insisted those who were eligible to play in the Fed Cup final could have done so without any repercussions while the ITF described the circumstances as an "isolated incident".

"It's a shame that this has happened in our 50th year but 22 of the top 30 in the world have played in the Fed Cup this year and we believe that a strong Fed Cup can only be good for the appeal of the women's game," an ITF spokesman told Reuters.

With the men's ATP Tour final next week in London and the Davis Cup final the following week, the ITF have been left with little wriggle room to play the Fed Cup final in a blank week, opting to schedule it the same week as the Tournament of Champions which began five years ago.

However, this is the first time that the Fed Cup final has been so directly impacted as in the past players such as Serbia's Jelena Jankovic and Ana Ivanovic opted to play for their country rather than at the WTA event.

Next year the Fed Cup final will move back one week into the gap created by the ATP Tour finals also going back one week instead of butting up against the Paris Masters.

"We would obviously prefer both teams to be at full strength this weekend, but believe this is an isolated situation and still expect a hard-fought tie in front of a sell-out crowd in Cagliari," ITF President Francesco Ricci Bitti said in a statement.

"By moving the date of the Fed Cup Final into a free week in 2014, we have shown flexibility and concern for the players in helping them to continue to represent their country in this prestigious competition."

In the meantime Errani is desperately trying to find out something about her obscure Russian opponent.

"I don't know Khromacheva very much. I will try to ask somebody who knows her and see on the internet how she plays," Errani told the ITF's website.

(Reporting by Martyn Herman; editing by Toby Davis)

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