LARGO — Kevin Manning didn't think much about the odd, burning sensation in his mouth. It was the spring of 2008, and Manning had just turned 50. He was playing some of the best tennis of his life.
But at a tournament in Baton Rouge, La., Manning woke up with a puddle of drool on his pillow. That was certainly out of the ordinary for him, but he played on. When the pain continued, Manning saw a doctor in late July.
The diagnosis was cancer. It had spread from his tongue to the left lymph nodes in his neck. Surgery was required to remove half of his tongue and the lymph nodes.
That much he could deal with. The surgery required only two days at the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. But what he couldn't stomach was he might miss the biggest tournament of his life.
Manning qualified to be a member of the U.S. team for the Fred Perry Cup, an international tournament in Turkey for players 50 and older. His surgery was just 11 days before he had to leave. He went through with the surgery, rested a little at home and made the 20-hour flight to Turkey.
"You put USA on the back of your jacket and you're going to have to have a Mack truck run over you,'' Manning said.
The team finished third, and Manning said he played well despite the pain. He figured he would slip back into his job as head professional at Shipwatch Yacht and Tennis Club in Largo, give lessons and play a few tournaments.
But the cancer wasn't giving up.
In March 2009, he was serving in an exhibition match at Shipwatch when he felt pain in his left arm. When he finally went for an X-ray in late April, cancer was discovered in his right lymph nodes. That meant more surgery and medication.
"My tongue and mouth is like a fireball,'' Manning said. "It's very tough. I can remember taking some pain medication on a nightly basis, being in the bathroom, looking at these pills and wondering how in the world I was going to get this down. I'd be there for hours just trying to do that.''
Despite 33 weekday radiation sessions and once-per-week chemo sessions, Manning continued to show up at Shipwatch. He would rise at 5:30 a.m., go through his chemo sessions and get to work by 8:30. He dropped from 191 pounds to 143. His speech was forever slurred due to the tongue surgery. But he remained encouraged.
"I was always optimistic that I would come out okay,'' Manning said.
Then came one more cruel blow.
In November of last year, Manning was giving a lesson. He remembers making an easy serve to his student then everything going dark. His right arm broke. After rushing to the emergency room, X-rays showed a tumor on his right arm. It also showed a clean break of the bone.
He has little use of the arm right now. There are eight screws that hold the bone in place, and as long as cancer doesn't return, he could one day regain use of the arm.
And through it all, through what he hopes is the third and final strike, Manning continues to show up. He continues to put on the tennis shorts, grab a racket with his left hand and give lessons. He has hired an assistant, Ron Thomas, to hit balls with students, but Manning is right there to give instruction.
"Bark orders,'' he says.
It takes Manning a few seconds to get up and down from chairs, and he walks much slower than he used to. But those at Shipwatch appreciate his presence.
"You can't give him enough credit for what he does after all he's been through,'' said Bill Nelligar, who has known Manning since he came to Shipwatch from Seminole Lakes nine years ago. "He's really an inspiration to everyone at Shipwatch.''
While the members at Shipwatch like having him around, Manning said he doesn't know what he would do without the club.
"I love being part of the team here at Shipwatch,'' Manning said. "It's a big thing to have this to come to."
Manning still endures chemotherapy once per week at Moffitt and takes four chemo pills daily. Over the past 11/2 years, there were plenty of times when Manning could have given up. There were plenty of chances to say, "Why me?'' He remembers thinking that only once.
"I can remember a day in December, when it was windy and cold, and I was coming off radiation,'' Manning said. "I slipped on the pool deck at home. I just wanted to become part of that pool deck. I didn't want to get up.
"Through all this stuff, I was still trying to be as normal as I could in my routine. So that was a tough day.''
If bad things really do happen in threes, then hopefully Manning is out of the woods. But cancer doesn't play by any rules. As life continues to throw him curveballs, Manning sticks to his one constant since he was 6 years old and growing up in Arlington, Va.: tennis.
"As long as I can, I will do my job,'' he said. "If I can catch a break, I'll turn this thing around. This is very tough, but I'm going to keep trying.
"Hopefully, everything will get going and I'll wind up on the other side. I remember when I was young, people would say that tennis is a sport for a lifetime. That saying is truly coming back right now.''