A highly appealing rivalry got underway tonight at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, it ended suddenly. 10th-seeded Belinda Bencic earned a victory over 23rd-ranked Karolina Muchova by the score of 7-5, 2-1, retired. The telling factor was an abdominal injury, Muchova hindered throughout the match and eventually in enough pain to cease play.

It was a case where it was easy to feel bad for both players. Certainly, there was empathy for Muchova, who hopefully will recover well enough to be healthy for the US Open that starts in just over a week. But Bencic too had fought hard to win the first set, earn a break early in the second and was no doubt keen to earn a straight-set victory. Throughout the match, Bencic continued to display the sharp and attentive form that had brought her two medals at the Olympics (gold in singles, silver in doubles).

Call Muchova versus Bencic a battle of stylists. Lest you think tennis is monochromatic, study these two closely and you’ll see a vast spectrum. Muchova has many of the tools owned by Ash Barty, including a versatile backhand and a strong willingness to charge the net. Bencic, once mentored by Martina Hingis and Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor, is a master at taking the ball early and using her smooth ball-striking skills to confound her opponents and deprive them of time. The contrast and variety each employs offer a wide range of rally possibilities.

Perhaps the injury limited the Czech's aggression. Staying back far more than usual, Muchova often let Bencic command the court space and was broken at 2-2 in the first set. Compounding Muchova’s woes was that Bencic covered the court with gazelle-like speed, on several occasions lining remarkable placements, be it a laser-like down-the-line backhand, a rolling angle off that side of a series of angled penetrating forehands. All told, Bencic hit 20 winners in the first set.


Bencic captured her biggest win to date at the Tokyo Olympics.

Bencic captured her biggest win to date at the Tokyo Olympics.

When Muchova served at 3-5, love-30, the first set seemed over. Under pressure, though, Muchova often reveals an old school brand of tenacity, barely revealing any emotions but instead letting her racquet do the talking with attacking tennis. On the love-30 point, she fired a great overhead. At 30-30, Muchova won the point of the match – a serve-volley combo that began with a deep backhand volley, continued with a smash and finished with a sublime crosscourt forehand half-volley winner. She went on to win that game and break Bencic in the next to even the set at 5-all. But at the stage, Bencic dug in. Most notably, at 30-all, she lined another down-the-line backhand passing shot and eventually broke serve, then closed out the 56-minute first set with a love hold.

It was hard to determine the extent of Muchova’s pain, particularly when in the opening game of the second set, she fought off two break points, the second with a crisp wide ace. But at 1-1, 30-all, Muchova lost two consecutive points with groundstrokes lined into the net. As she walked to change sides, Muchova informed the chair umpire and Bencic she could go no further.

Bencic next plays a compatriot, Jill Teichmann, who earlier this evening beat Osaka. Bencic won their only prior match, four years ago in Taipei, 6-4, 7-5. Though it seems a long time ago, only two years ago, Bencic beat defending champion Naomi Osaka at the 2019 US Open on her way to the semis. Regardless of how it all turns out for Bencic in Cincinnati, she appears to be in a good position to build off her Tokyo run and be a factor in New York.