Abstract Theoretical and experimental results are presented to evaluate the deformation behavior of the contact between a real rough flat surface and a smooth ball. There are three deformation responses: plastic deformation of the asperities only, plastic deformation of the bulk only and combined plastic deformation of both the asperities and the bulk. The effects of the surface roughness and the Hertzian contact parameters on the effective contact pressure are presented. The experimental results confirmed the theoretical prediction very well. For a given Hertzian contact situation the surface roughness plays an important role in controlling the deformation behavior of the contacting surfaces. A criterion is presented to predict the deformation behavior of contacting engineering surfaces.