ROME -- Roger Federer has a long way to go if he wants to successfully defend his French Open title next month.
In his first singles match of the clay-court season, Federer lost to 40th-ranked Ernests Gulbis of Latvia 2-6, 6-1, 7-5 on Tuesday in his Rome Masters opener.
The top-ranked Swiss will play two more tournaments -- in Estoril, Portugal, and Madrid -- before the start of the French Open on May 23.
"I hope I can come back from this. That's usually what I do after a loss like this," Federer said. "Sometimes it takes a loss to wake up and shake you up for your approach the next week. When you always win, sometimes you forget how hard it is. That's why today I don't get too worried about this loss."
Gulbis was anything but blase about what happened.
"I don't have a word in English for it," he said. "It's indescribable."
Earlier, Novak Djokovic began his bid to reach a third consecutive final at Foro Italico with a 6-1, 6-1 win over France's Jeremy Chardy; fourth-seeded Andy Murray beat the top Italian, Andreas Seppi, 6-2, 6-4; Lleyton Hewitt, coming back from hip surgery, ousted ninth-seeded Mikhail Youzhny 6-4, 4-6, 6-3; and Victor Hanescu of Romania upset 16th-seeded Juan Monaco 7-6 (4), 6-4.
This was Federer's first singles match in nearly a month. He took off several weeks after losing in the fourth round in Key Biscayne, Fla., at the end of March.
Federer struggled with his serve, landing only 50 percent of his first attempts to the big-serving Gulbis' 71 percent. In the third set, Federer missed one routine baseline shot after another.
"My game was definitely not up to speed," he said. "My serve was not working at all. On clay you can lose the feeling sometimes. At one point I tried to go three-quarters speed but that didn't work, either. So I just kept going for it and hoping that it would come back eventually, and it didn't unfortunately."
Gulbis fought off jitters at the end, winning on his seventh match point after double-faulting twice when within a point of victory.
"I couldn't put a serve in," he said. "I was shaking. I didn't know what to do. It was a terrible feeling."
"It will give a good chance to forget today and move forward," Federer said.
A light rain fell during the match on a cool day, but Federer refused to blame the weather.
"I started well and the conditions were kind of like the French Open final last year," he said. "Actually, I wasn't too happy that it was slow against a player that likes to end the points quickly."
Gulbis also took Federer to a third set before losing in the quarterfinals in Doha, Qatar, in January. His first career title came the next month in Delray Beach, Fla.
"He has immense power on both sides and one of the fastest serves in the game," Federer said. "I think he's got a great future."
The 21-year-old Gulbis began working with a new coach in September and credits former Argentine pro Hernan Gumy with his improved play. He also hired a new fitness coach.
"I just started concentrating more on tennis, treating it more like my job," Gulbis said. "Last year I didn't take it as a job. It was more like a hobby. I didn't have a system.
"Before I was practicing maybe three days and then going out with friends two days. I'm still not a big tennis freak ... but I have a better system. My team is perfect now. It's my coach, my fitness coach and my father," he said.
In other matches, Stanislas Wawrinka of Switzerland beat Jurgen Melzer of Austria 6-1, 6-2; Feliciano Lopez of Spain downed Benjamin Becker of Germany 6-4, 6-3; and Italian wild card Simone Bolelli eliminated German lucky loser Simon Greul 6-4, 6-1.