SOUTH WHITEHALL – Henry Paiste is one of the top tennis players in the state in his age group. He has won his share of tournaments outside of high school tennis.
However, his one experience with scholastic tennis quickly turned into the highlight of his career.
Paiste beat Moravian Academy's Andrew Ma, 4-6, 6-3, 6-1 Monday afternoon at West End Racquet Club for this year's District 11 Class AA singles championship.
"I've won a few tournaments and they are all up there," Paiste said. "They are all pretty important to me. This is the biggest at the moment. This is surreal right now."
A home-schooled freshman from the Northwestern school district, Paiste did not compete in the high school season because Northwestern doesn't have a team. He earned the No. 4 seed in districts based on his performance in local tournaments outside of the scholastic season.
He easily dispatched of his first four opponents, winning two matches last Thursday and two more on Saturday to get to Monday's final.
Nerves were a factor early in the district final, which was televised by two local television stations. Paiste fell behind 3-1 in the first set. He came back to get within a game at 3-2, 4-3 and 5-4, but Ma held serve for the final point, hammering three straight aces to finish it off.
"Going into the first set I was extremely nervous," said Paiste. "I haven't played districts before, let alone a final. This was the first time playing in front of cameras for me."
Ma, a sophomore who played No. 2 singles for Moravian, got to the title match by beating his teammate and the Lions' No. 1 singles player, Valla Madhav in a three-set semifinal, 7-5, 1-6, 6-4. Madhav was the No. 1 seed in the tournament. Ma was No. 6.
Paiste's nerves settled down in the second set. He won the first three games, breaking Ma's serve in the second set to grab the momentum.
"I should have focused more early in the second set and held serve," said Ma. "If I could have done that I probably would have been fine."
Ma was able to come back, pulling the second set to 3-3 before Paiste won three straight games to even the match at 1-1.
"The match was really back and forth today," said Paiste. "The second set was very important. That was kind of where (the nerves) settled off. About halfway through the second set was when I got my composure."
Paiste also started having more success at the net in the the second and third sets.
With momentum on his side, Paiste won the third set 6-1. All seven games in the third set were close. Four went to deuce and Paiste won each of them to earn his first district crown. He had two match points before finishing it off on the third try.
It was the first time in the three day tournament that Paiste was really tested. He opened with 6-0, 6-1 and 6-0, 6-2 wins last Thursday. He followed that by winning the quarterfinals 6-3, 6-1 and the semi 6-4, 6-2.
Paiste, Northwestern's first district tennis champ, will advance to the PIAA singles championships in three weeks.
Paiste was overjoyed with his first scholastic tournament.
"The first set was extremely nerve wracking," he said. "But I think it turned out pretty well."