By Paul Virgo
ROME (Reuters) - Roger Federer's 2009 claycourt season ended in a blaze of glory, capturing an elusive French Open crown on an unforgettable Paris afternoon last June. His 2010 bow could hardly have been more dreary in comparison.
The world number one peppered Rome's slick Foro Italico court with unforced errors before succumbing to 40th-ranked Ernests Gulbis 2-6 6-1 7-5 in the second round of the Rome Masters on Tuesday.
The Swiss maestro chalked up 38 unforced errors in the damp conditions before the nervy Latvian converted his seventh match point to set off minor alarm bells for Federer a month away from his Roland Garros defense.
"My game wasn't up to speed," Federer told a news conference.
"My serve wasn't working. I couldn't get my first serve in. It was a frustrating end to the match. That's the way it goes sometimes."
He also exited his last two tournaments, in Miami and Indian Wells, in the early stages after winning his 16th Grand Slam at the Australian Open in January.
Federer looked to be cruising when he took the first set with ease in drizzly conditions, with Gulbis dogged by erratic play.
But the Latvian cleaned up his act and took advantage of some uncharacteristically sloppy play from Federer to notch a run of five consecutive games and win the second.
Federer then saved two match points on his serve in the ninth game of the final set, having been broken in the fifth, before Gulbis wasted four more in the following game to let his opponent back in the contest.
But the Swiss dropped serve immediately and Gulbis held his to love to claim a memorable victory.
World number two Novak Djokovic, in contrast, made a stylish start to his campaign, blowing away Frenchman Jeremy Chardy 6-1 6-1 in just under an hour to reach the third round.
The Serb, the 2008 Rome champion, gave Chardy a torrid time on his serve and produced some stunning cross-court winners in a performance that should raise his morale after a low-key start to the season.
Reigning champion Rafa Nadal of Spain will face Germany's Philipp Kohlschreiber on Wednesday.
Murray, who suffered an ignominious straight sets defeat on his claycourt season debut in Monte Carlo a fortnight ago, snapped a three-match losing streak with a confident 6-2 6-4 win over Italy's Andreas Seppi.
(Editing by Miles Evans)