ALLENTOWN – Like a true champion, Northwestern's Henry Paiste was at his best when things looked worst.
Because he was, Paiste is now a two-time champion.
Monday afternoon at the Westend Racquet Swim and Fitness Club, Paiste captured the District 11 Class AA tennis championship with a 6-4, 6-2 victory over Allentown Central Catholic's Libario Obeid.
"I'm excited I was able to defend my district championship," said Paiste. "To win titles in my first two years is something that I never imagined.
"Today's win was extremely rewarding. To beat a great player like Libario is an outstanding feeling."
Most years, a returning district champion would enter a tournament as the player to beat. But this was no ordinary year. Despite winning it all as a freshman a year ago, Paiste entered this year's tournament as the No. 2 seed.
That's because Obeid, the 2010 D-11 AA champion returned to the area this season after his family had moved to the Pittsburgh area last year.
The ACC senior lived up his No. 1 seed early in the match, jumping out to a 4-2 first set advantage.
For Paiste, who had only lost a total of four games in the first four rounds of the tournament combined, an early deficit to a veteran tournament champion could have been reason to panic.
He never did.
"I just told myself I had to relax and play my game," said Paiste. "With the television cameras and the crowd cheering loudly, it's not your normal tennis conditions. It could be easy to get distracted so I had to make sure I was focused, especially when I fell behind."
Paiste showed that focus by losing just one point over the next two games as he rallied to tie the opening set at 4-4. He followed that with some strong net play as he battled through a couple of deuce points to win his serve and grab the lead. His second straight service break gave him the opening set.
"The turning point for me came in the first set," said Paiste. "I was down a service break and trailing 4-2. But I finally had a good service game and then I was able to break him and tie the score. From that point on, I thought I played really well."
That was an understatement.
After winning the final four games of the opening set, Paiste jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the second set and never faltered on his way to closing out the match, 6-2.
"I was struggling with my serve in the first set and Libario was serving the ball extremely well," explained Paiste about the chief reasons for his early struggles. "When that's happening you have to maintain confidence in your game.
"I knew my serve would eventually come around so I had to trust it. I also knew that for me to win I was going to have to do a better job of handling his serve."
Paiste was right on both accounts.
After hitting a low percentage of his first serves and double faulting four times the early stages of the first set, Paiste began to zero in on his serving form. He consistently got his first serve in and had just one double fault over his last six service games.
Paiste's return of service also picked up. Obeid had six service winners as he built his 4-2 first set lead, but had just two more the remainder of the match. That proved to be a key as Paiste finished up the match by breaking Obeid on each of his final six service games.
"I was able to get on a nice run and really build some momentum," said Paiste, who won 10 of the last 12 games. "But even though I was winning a lot of the games, Libario was playing very well.
"We had a lot of close games, I'm just happy I was able to get some big points when I need them."
Paiste's reward for his second straight D-11 title is a return trip to Hershey for the PIAA State Championships on May 25-26.
"I'm looking forward to getting another chance in the state tournament," said Paiste. "The competition is incredible at states. My goal is to just play to the best of my ability. Last year, I lost my first match so it would be nice to stick around a little longer this year.
"I can't wait to get another opportunity. You see so many great players, it's the type of challenge that I just love."
Spoken like a true champion – make that a true two-time champion.