ROME — Already missing the world's top four players, the Italian Open men's tennis championships almost lost its top seed in the first round.
American Brad Gilbert survived a disastrous first set and an eye problem, then benefited from a rain delay to defeat Jim Pugh, 1-6, 6-4, 6-4, at the Foro Italico today.
In other matches involving seeded players, No. 4 Emilio Sanchez of Spain beat Andrew Sznajder of Canada, 6-2, 6-1; No. 5 Jay Berger defeated Amos Mansdorf of Israel, 3-6, 6-1, 6-0, and No. 12 Guillermo Perez-Roldan of Argentina edged Ronald Agenor of Haiti, 6-7, 6-2, 6-4.
No. 3 Andres Gomez of Ecuador faced Yannick Noah of France in a night match.
French Open champion Michael Chang, the No. 7 seed, had been scheduled to play Jan Gunnarsson of Sweden, but the match was pushed back to Tuesday because of the rain delay.
Gilbert, ranked No. 5 in the world, became the top seed after organizers failed to attract Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Andre Agassi. Top-ranked Ivan Lendl, who won the title here two years ago, has vowed not to return because of the boisterous crowds.
In the first set, many may have wondered why Gilbert had been seeded at all. Looking lost on the slow red clay, he fell behind, 5-0, prompting whistles of disgust from the crowd.
Meanwhile, Pugh, who played at UCLA, hit his two-handed forehand and backhand with confidence and volleyed with the finesse that has made him one of the top doubles players in the world.
When Gilbert broke for 5-1, he threw up his arms in mock triumph. The match was interrupted at that point because of rain.
During the 90-minute delay, Gilbert received treatment on his right eye from ATP trainer Bill Norris.
"It was a bite or an infection," Gilbert said. "I woke up this morning and it was all swollen. Bill did some really good work on it during the delay and my vision was better when I came back."
When the match resumed, Pugh broke serve at love to win the first set. But Gilbert broke back to open the second set and fought his way back into the match.
"The rain definitely helped me," he said. "When I came back I played more patiently. Maybe if we hadn't stopped for the rain I would have lost in straight sets. This way with the delay I had time to think and regroup a little."
Gilbert cut down his errors, scored a decisive break to go up 5-4, and served out the second set.
The pattern was repeated in the third set as Gilbert broke for a 5-4 lead, hitting back-to-back passing shots. He served out the match at 15.
"Three years ago I probably would have lost this match," said Gilbert, playing his first European clay tournament since 1987. "When I had to play on clay I would talk myself into losing. Now I play more relaxed."