ANDRE AGASSI has given Victoria Azarenka the benefit of the doubt over her controversial decision to seek medical help in her Australian Open semi-final, but insisted time-outs must be retained to ensure the safety of players.
Azarenka has been beset by accusations she bent the rules by taking a time-out immediately after dropping serve to Sloane Stephens on Thursday so she could gather herself and calm her nerves.
The world No.1 was off the court for about 10 minutes while being treated for what she said after the match was a locked rib, which was affecting her breathing.
The scepticism over Azarenka's time-out has not been well received by former players and tennis fans and is likely to ensure her opponent in the final, Li Na, carries the local support on Saturday night.
Agassi, a four-time winner at Melbourne Park, said the rules meant it was possible for a player to lie to halt a match, but hoped nobody would abuse the privilege. On arriving in Melbourne for a promotional visit with a sponsor, the former world No.1 was not prepared to condemn the Belarusian's tactics. ''We've all seen our share of disappointments from people we believe or [don't] believe. I can't judge somebody I don't know,'' he said. ''We'd only be speculating … Take it for face value is how I would do it.''
Agassi said medical time-outs were paramount for players' safety, especially at the Australian Open, which he said was challenging physically because of the oppressive conditions.
''I was playing David Prinosil here one time [in 2001] and he took a medical time-out on one of the hottest days that I'd played here at 7-6 after the first set,'' he said.
''They [trainers] walked out on the court when it was 3-0 and they checked his heart rate and it was 180 beats a minute and he wasn't even breathing that hard. They took him into the locker room and stuck him on bags of ice and got an IV in him and quite possibly saved his life. I'm on the other side of the court, I wasn't trying to kill him, but I'm thankful somebody else was monitoring it. So medical time-outs are important.
''How players use it is important, too, for certainly the integrity of the game. So you have to take someone's word for it, I guess.''
Agassi could not recall an opponent exploiting a time-out to change a match's momentum and said he never entertained the idea of doing so. But he admitted to guilt during a match at Wimbledon in 1994, against Nicolas Pereira, when a toilet break might have changed momentum. Agassi won in five sets.
''It would have been a huge upset for him. We were out there for 4½ hours and even though it was a cool day and I wasn't perspiring a lot, I was drinking a lot, and needed to use the restroom. It was just what I had to do,'' he said. ''So there are times when you feel bad that something like that might affect the match. It's never been done to me in a way that's concerned me.''
It is 10 years since Agassi won the last of his Australian Open titles and six years since he retired, but he said Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray had taken the men's game to such a level that this era represented the ''golden age of tennis''.
''You're talking about three of the greatest in one generation, it's remarkable,'' he said. ''Certainly Murray is on the front end of a lot more competitions. He's got longer to go to be in that discussion but to breakthrough during a time when you've got these three suggests it's his time as well. I think it's remarkable.
''As far as who bridges the gap, I don't really know … There's definitely some distance between them and the rest. But the game always improves, even when you think it can't.''