It was a classic Pete Sampras performance on clay.
He won, escaping from a low-ranked opponent, but in the process made 49 unforced errors and raised questions whether he can ever adapt his game to the slow red surface.
"I got a little lucky, I have to admit it," Sampras said after defeating Bohdan Uhlirach 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-2) in a first round match in the Italian Open.
His opponent led 4-1 and 5-2 in the decisive third set and served for the match at 5-3, but was tentative and let Sampras take over the pace.
In fairness, it was Sampras' first clay court singles match since losing in the second round of the French Open a year ago. And because of an aching back, he has been off the tour for a month.
But with the French Open starting May 24, he is running out of time to prepare for the only Grand Slam played on clay and the only major he's never won.
The $2.4 million Italian Open quickly lost the talented but erratic Marcelo Rios, who was ousted by German qualifier David Prinosil 6-2, 5-7, 6-3. The eighth-seeded Rios had won his first title of the year Sunday at Hamburg.
Also eliminated was No. 13 Albert Costa of Spain, who lost to South Africa's Wayne Ferreira 3-6, 6-2, 7-6 (7-4).
Reigning French Open champion Carlos Moya, seeded sixth, had little trouble with Renzo Furlan, beating the local wild-card entry 6-2, 6-4.
"It was my first clay-court match of year. I didn't know what to expect today," said Sampras, who counts just three clay titles among his 56 career championships.
Ulihrach, ranked No. 38 in the world, boasts of two career wins over Sampras. He was serving for a third at 5-3 when Sampras reeled off three forehand winners, rifling one cross court on break point as his opponent stood at the baseline.
"I figured he was not really going to go for it at that point," Sampras said. "I finally snapped off one of the best forehands I hit all day."
The packed center court crowd at the Foro Italico jeered when Sampras went down meekly in the first set but got behind him when the American finally got into the match.
"It was a great atmosphere. It was certainly a help," Sampras said.
As he tries to add the French to his 11 Grand Slam titles, Sampras is insisting he'll do it his way.
That is, he'll try to serve and volley more and be more aggressive.
"Having struggled on clay for most of my career, it's time to try this," Sampras said. "I'm not going to beat those guys staying back."
Seeded No. 2 behind Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Sampras has more at stake than just preparing for Paris. By reaching at least the quarterfinals, the American has a shot at overtaking the Russian and regaining the No. 1 ranking.
Also moving ahead were No. 5 Richard Krajicek; two seeded British players, No. 7 Tim Henman and No. 12 Greg Rusedski, neither comfortable on clay; and No. 16 Gustavo Kuertenthe 1997 French Open champion.
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