WARSAW, Poland (AP) – Wearing strips of white tape on her right shoulder, Maria Sharapova played her first singles match on tour in nearly 10 months, and while she won on Monday, her game did show signs of rust.

The three-time Grand Slam title winner needed nine match points to finally put away 68th-ranked Tathiana Garbin of Italy 6-1, 6-7 (6), 6-3 in the first round of the Warsaw Open.

“When you haven’t been there, haven’t done that in a while, it throws you off a little bit,” said Sharapova, whose last competitive singles match was July 30, “and then there you are after nine months, and you have an opportunity to win your first match back, and you start thinking of everything that’s gone on, and you kind of lose the present time.”

The Russian had surgery for a torn rotator cuff last year and missed the past two Grand Slam tournaments. She wouldn’t discuss the French Open, which starts Sunday – and is the only major championship she hasn’t won.

Sharapova, who said her shoulder didn’t bother her against Garbin, did stress that playing matches is the only way to return to the form that carried her to the No. 1 ranking.

She’s now ranked 126th.

“I’ve been absent for so long, and I’ve said it many times: You can do so many things, you can practice and you can play practice matches, but it’s never the same as going out and playing in a tournament, and I think that’s what I’ll need,” she said.

“I’ve played millions of matches in my career, and I’ll play millions more, and I think right now it’s just going to be getting that experience back and the thought process on the court and doing the right things to finish the match.”

Sharapova did have problems in that department Monday.

She cruised through the first set and grabbed a 4-0 lead in the second before her serve started to falter. Serving at 5-3, she wasted four match points – double-faulting on two of them – and then failed to convert two more in the tiebreaker before netting a forehand to give that set to Garbin.

“I was definitely a little bit nervous closing that second set out,” Sharapova said.

In the third, she dropped an early break before rallying with her trademark groundstrokes to overpower the Italian. Sharapova held serve to go up 5-3, then converted her third match point when Garbin knocked a backhand long.

“I certainly had desire to win my first match back,” Sharapova said. “I’m hungry. I haven’t played for a while, and I want it really bad, and sometimes I actually have to stop myself at times and tell myself to be patient.”

She made a brief return to professional tennis in March, playing – and losing – one doubles match in Indian Wells, Calif. But she pulled out of a series of singles events, waiting until this week to test her shoulder in competition.

“In these nine months, the only thing I’ve accomplished is probably a good pasta carbonara,” Sharapova said. “At the end of the day, that’s not my specialty. My specialty is to go out and compete and win Grand Slams.”

In other first-round action at this clay-court tournament, Marta Domachowska of Poland beat Akgul Amanmuradova of Uzbekistan, 6-2, 6-1; Anne Keothavong of Britain eliminated Bethanie Mattek-Sands of the United States, 6-2, 7-6 (4); Jie Zheng of China beat Olga Govortsova of Belarus, 4-6, 7-6 (0), 6-3; Kateryna Bondarenko of Ukraine beat Tsvetana Pironkova of Bulgaria, 7-5, 6-2; Julia Goerges of Germany defeated Aleksandra Wozniak of Canada 7-6 (5), 6-3; and Alona Bondarenko of Ukraine eliminated Katarzyna Piter of Poland 6-0, 6-0.

AP-ES-05-18-09 1542EDT

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