ALLENTOWN – As he watched a perfectly placed lob shot sail over the head of Zach Shaff and bounce out of his reach, Henry Paiste let out one final shout.
His loud "yes" and the accompanying fist pump put the finishing touches on 2 hours and 28 minutes of incredible tennis.
It also gave Paiste his third consecutive District 11 Class AA singles championship.
While the first time is always special, and repeating is almost always more difficult, it's hard to imagine any of the titles being more rewarding than Monday's three-peat.
That's because of how hard and how long Paiste had to work to achieve it.
The Northwestern School District junior dropped the first set before rallying for a 2-6, 6-3, 6-4 victory over Shaff, a Moravian Academy freshman.
Paiste will now advance to the PIAA State Tournament that begins on May 24 at the Hershey Racquet Club.
"This was my toughest match in three years of district competition," said Paiste, who improved his record to 15-0 in District 11 play during that time span. "Because of how well I had to play to win, I would say this is probably more rewarding than of any of my previous district victories.
"Zach played a great match and really pushed me. That's why this feels so good right now."
Paiste, who had dropped just one set in his 14 previous district matches, struggled early against the quick and relentless Shaff, dropping the final three games of the opening set.
"I thought I was doing the right things and playing the style I wanted to in the opening set, but Zach was playing really well," said Paiste. "I missed some shots that I feel like I should have put away, but at the same time I hit a lot of balls that I thought were winners that Zach ended up getting to and getting back.
"When that happens, I think it's important not to panic. So I tried to stay committed to what I was doing."
Paiste, who was the bigger and stronger of the two players, never eased off the power and continued to pound the ball all over the court.
"I tried to move him corner to corner and keep the pressure on," said Paiste. "I thought that maybe I could wear him down, but for a while it seemed like that was never going to happen."
Gradually Paiste's power seemed to be taking effect, however. After playing a near perfect first set where he committed just four unforced errors, Shaff had 10 unforced errors in the second set as Paiste rallied from an early 2-1 deficit to win 6-3.
Although Shaff continued to make amazing and acrobatic plays all over the court in the third set, Paiste kept the pressure on and Shaff began to wear down. Battling leg cramps during the last several games of the match, Shaff committed 19 unforced errors in the third set.
"That was the longest match of my life," said Shaff. "In the end, he just beat me mentally and physically."
But Shaff didn't go down without a fight.
Trailing 3-1 in the third set and having lost seven of the previous nine games, Shaff had his back to the wall. But he came out swinging.
Several aggressive charges to the net shifted the momentum and he won three straight games to take a 4-3 lead.
"There were a couple points in the match, particularly early in the second set and then again when he went ahead late in third set, that for a brief second, the thought entered my mind that I could lose this," said Paiste. "But that only lasted for a second.
"That's when I said to myself, 'just win the next point.' That's what you have to stay focused on. One swing, one point at a time and that's what I was able to do."
Trailing 4-3, Paiste fought off a game-point and managed to hold serve to even the score at 4-4.
"I thought I played pretty well," said Shaff. "But the one regret I have is that when I was leading 4-3 in the third set I couldn't finish it off. I had multiple chances to go ahead 5-3 but I couldn't capitalize."
Paiste then pulled off his seventh service break of the match to take a 5-4 lead. He put the match away on his ensuing serve.
"When you're in a match like this, it's as much mental as it is physical," said Paiste. "That's where all the time you put in at the gym and on the court pays off.
"You have to fight through the tiredness and the doubts and find a way to win. It's how much heart you have and how much you want it."
A powerful serve, a strong net game, and the ability to hit the perfect lob at the perfect time doesn't hurt either.